As GOP Candidates Question Climate Change, Texas & Oklahoma Hit by Devastating Floods Killing 23

May 29, 2015


Katharine Hayhoe

atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, an organization created to bridge the gap between scientists and industry and government. She is co-author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. In 2014, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in America.

Forrest Wilder

associate editor at The Texas Observer, originally from the town Wimberley, one of the towns worst hit flooding this week.

Severe storms that began last week in Texas and Oklahoma have killed at least 23 people, and the damage is so extensive that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared nearly 40 counties disaster areas. In Houston, many highways turned into waterways, and more than a thousand cars were submerged under water. President Obama has pledged federal assistance to help the state recover, but cleanup efforts were stalled Thursday as thunderstorms continued. The historic floods in Texas come as the state is just ending an extreme drought. Meanwhile, several possible Republican presidential candidates are questioning climate change. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has talked about "global warming alarmists." Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has said "climate change has been co-opted by the hardcore left."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Severe storms that began last week in Texas and Oklahoma have killed at least 23 people, and the damage is so extensive that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared nearly 40 counties disaster areas. In Houston, many highways turned into waterways, and more than a thousand cars were submerged under water. President Obama has pledged federal assistance to help the state recover, but cleanup efforts were stalled Thursday as thunderstorms continued. Some of the worst flooding happened in the small town of Wimberley, between San Antonio and Austin, where the Blanco River rose 28 feet in just an hour, cresting at 40 feet—more than triple its flood stage of 13 feet. This is Hays County Commissioner Will Conley.

WILL CONLEY: Our community along the Blanco River in Hays County and our colleagues in Blanco County and Caldwell and in Gonzales County have been devastated by a tsunami of water, a historic tsunami of water that came down the Blanco River very quickly, in a very powerful way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Among those still missing is Laura McComb and her two young children, who were in their house when floodwaters from the Blanco River washed it off its foundation. Her sister, Julie Shields, described how she received a phone call from McComb around 1:00 a.m. Tuesday morning.

JULIE SHIELDS: The roof collapsed. "We are in a house that is now floating down the river. Call Mom and Dad. I love you. And pray." And it was incredibly calm. And she knew. She knew. And some people never get the opportunity to say goodbye. And the conversation that we had—you don’t realize it at the time. I mean, I thought that, you know, I’d be the big sister bailing out the little sister the next morning, because she had to get off the phone. She saw a light. They thought they were about to get rescued. So, me thinking—I’m seeing all these water rescues, it’s the helicopter coming down, they’re lowering the hoist, and they’re going to pull her up. And I just expected to go to the Wimberley high school the next day and find her. And then, when she wasn’t there, I knew something was very, very wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: The historic floods in Texas come as the state is just ending an extreme drought.

For more, we go directly to Texas. We’re joined by two guests. In Austin, Forrest Wilder is associate editor of The Texas Observer, where he’s covered the state’s environment for more than a decade. He’s originally from Wimberley. And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from outside Dallas is Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, an organization created to bridge the gap between scientists and industry and government. She’s co-author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. In 2014, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in America.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Katharine Hayhoe, let’s begin with you. What are you seeing in Texas right now? Can you relate these horrific floods that have killed a number of people to climate change?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Well, this is our severe weather season, so this is the time of year when we typically do get severe weather patterns like we’re seeing this month. But they are relentless. We are seeing these lines of storms pass through with only a day or two or three in between them. We had one last night, we’re expecting another tomorrow. These storms are getting an extra shot of adrenalin from El Niño. We haven’t had an El Niño year for quite some time. But we also know that, as humans, we have altered the background conditions of our atmosphere, through putting all of this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so every weather event that happens has some component of climate change in it. And in the case of heavy rainfall, we know that what climate change is doing is increasing the amount of water vapor that’s sitting there in the atmosphere for these storms to pick up and dump on us.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Forrest Wilder, you’re in Wimberley. Could you describe what happened there, where the flash flood was compared to a tsunami?

FORREST WILDER: Right. The Blanco River, on a normal day, it’s a pretty small river. It’s shallow. It’s a very beautiful, calm, serene kind of place. It is prone to flash flooding. We’ve seen that, you know, many, many times. But this was just orders of magnitude more extreme than anything that is on the historical record or that anybody alive has ever witnessed. Basically, we had supersaturated soil conditions from all the rainfall that we’re getting. And then, on top of that, we had, in the watershed, you know, 10 inches in some places. And what that did is it just generated just a massive amount of water flowing into the river in a very short time span, and it just rolled downriver and took out hundreds of homes. And, of course, there was a loss of life. There’s still people that are missing. There are folks trapped in their homes, trapped on top of their homes, people in the water. This was unlike really anything that anyone has seen, and it happened so fast that it was very difficult to see it coming or to be prepared for it, frankly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are Texas lawmakers doing to address climate change, given the severity of what’s occurring?

FORREST WILDER: Well, I think, in a word, basically nothing. We’re just completing our legislative session, in which there were a handful of climate-related bills that were filed, some that are pretty benign, you know, things like requiring state agencies to add to their preparedness plans taking a look at extreme weather, taking a look at climate change. That bill was unable to get passed. In fact, it was voted down overwhelmingly by the Republican majority. Basically, we have a situation—continue to have a situation in Texas where our political leadership doesn’t believe in climate change, or at least not human-caused climate change. And so, there’s just a situation of inaction at the political level. I think it’s a little bit different if you’re talking about ordinary people, who are starting to make some connections between these extreme weather events and climate change. But there’s a disconnect between people’s understanding and experience and what’s happening in our Capitol.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Texas senator and Republican presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz. He voted against a federal disaster relief bill in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, calling it, quote, "symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington—an addiction to spending money we do not have." But on Wednesday, he called for federal relief in the wake of the floods and storms in Texas.

SEN. TED CRUZ: The federal government’s role, once the governor declares a disaster area and makes a request—I am confident that the Texas congressional delegation, Senator Cornyn and I, and the members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, will stand united as the Texans in support of the federal government fulfilling its statutory obligations and stepping in to respond to this natural disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Texas Senator Ted Cruz has also disputed the scientific research about climate change. This is Ted Cruz speaking in March during an interview with The Texas Tribune.

SEN. TED CRUZ: On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate. What do they do? They scream, "You’re a denier!" They brand you a heretic. You know, it is—today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know, it used to be it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

AMY GOODMAN: And last week, Jeb Bush, while the former governor of Florida, his family lives in Texas—his father, President George H.W. Bush, as well as his brother, President George W. Bush—last week, Jeb Bush, a presidential contender himself, was asked about climate change by David Brody of The Daily Signal.

DAVID BRODY: A lot of folks are wondering if climate change is real. I know you seem to suggest it is. Do you believe humans, then, are partly, if not fully, responsible for something like this?

JEB BUSH: No, I don’t. The climate is changing.


JEB BUSH: I don’t think anybody can argue that it’s not. And I’m not—I don’t think anybody truly knows what percentage of this is man-made and which percentage is just the natural evolution of what happens over time on this planet.


JEB BUSH: I think we have a responsibility to adapt to what the possibilities are, without destroying our economy, without hollowing out our industrial core. There are things that we could do that are commonsensical about this. The problem is, climate change has been co-opted by the hardcore left, and if you don’t march to their beat perfectly, then you’re a denier. You know, this is back to this lack of civility, I think, in American political life, where even if you—I mean, you have to agree with people now 100 percent of the time, or you’re as bad as someone who disagrees with you completely.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeb Bush. He hasn’t actually announced that he’s running for president, but that is what he has suggested for the last months. Katharine Hayhoe, you have dealt with this issue of climate denialism. You dealt with it in your own family, with your husband, who now co-wrote your latest book. You head up the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Talk about what Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are saying and how you tie it to your own religion as an evangelical, the issue of climate change and human-induced climate chaos.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Well, when we hear people saying things like these quotes that you just played, it’s natural to assume, "Oh, they have a problem with the science. So what we need to do is we need to explain the science more clearly. Maybe we need some colored figures. Maybe we need a primer or some type of basic explanation of the science that we’ve known for almost 200 years." But here’s the thing. What the social science tells us is they don’t really object to the science. What they really object to—and if you listen carefully to Jeb Bush, he alluded to this—what they really object to are the solutions, because, by definition, climate change is a tragedy of the commons. That means that we don’t, as individuals, have enough incentive to solve it ourselves. We require—it requires some type of large-scale action, like putting a price on carbon, which in turn requires government intervention. But you can’t really say, politically, "Oh, sure it’s a real problem. Of course it is. But I don’t want to do anything about it." That’s very politically unacceptable. It’s a lot easier to say it isn’t a real problem than to say, "It is, but I don’t like any of the solutions that have been proposed."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how do you, Katharine, deal with climate deniers now yourself, particularly in Texas?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Well, whenever we talk to people, I think the first thing to do is to bond over our shared values and connect those pre-existing shared values to the issue of climate change. So often, as you just heard in the quotes, people think, "Oh, well, you can only care about climate change if you’re a hardcore liberal, or if you’re a green tree hugger, you know, or if you’re this list of certain things, and if you’re not any of those things, you can’t care about climate change." So the first thing I always do is I try to connect the dots between something that people already care about, whether it’s national security, our water resources, the safety of our family and our community, or our health. I mean, we can connect the dots between almost anything that anybody cares about and climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: How can—how did you deal with it in your own family, with your husband? Talk about your evangelical roots and how you actually believe that evangelicals—there’s a growing movement of evangelicals who talk about being stewards of the Earth.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Well, talking about values, talking about what is already in people’s heart, there’s no greater value for many people than the values that come from our faith. So, for example, for Christians, we believe that God created the world, that God gave the world to people to care for every living thing. That comes from Genesis. And then, if we go over to the New Testament, we know that God wants us to love and care for other people. The greatest commandment is to love God and then love your neighbor as yourself. We’re constantly told to care for the poor and the needy and the disadvantaged and those who don’t have the resources we do. So, that is the value that we can connect directly to climate change, because the people who are being most impacted by climate change are the people who don’t have the resources to adapt.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of which, India right now, I mean, we’re talking about 20 people who have died in Texas, and we see how horrific it is. In India, at this point, we’re talking about 1,800 people, it is believed, have died, and the numbers are probably much higher, the death toll. A local resident describes the impact of the scorching heat in India.

ANDHRA PRADESH RESIDENT: All the pets and all the children, all the grandparents are suffering a lot, because of the heat. If even we can see a simple person sitting in the home is sweating a lot due to the dehydration. Nighttime also, because of the power cuts, and from the morning—from the morning and night and even in the midday, the power cuts is creating a lot of problems for the households and to all the family members. This summer, I think, is the worst summer ever seen by the wiser people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, India now is dealing with a heat wave, and these deaths from the heat wave have now been reported in at least four Indian states. Katharine Hayhoe?

KATHARINE HAYHOE: This is a pattern that we’re seeing around the world. Back in 2003, there was a heat wave in Europe that, when all was done and told, was responsible for over 70,000 deaths that would not have occurred otherwise. So, we are seeing heat waves that have always occurred naturally. Heat waves are part of life on this planet. We are seeing these heat waves getting more frequent and getting stronger because of climate change. The way I think of it is, we always had a chance of rolling a double six, that extreme heat wave, on our climate dice. But what climate change is doing is it’s going in, and it’s replacing a few other numbers with sixes, so our chances of rolling those double sixes are going up, and climate change is even replacing some of those sixes with sevens, so our heat waves are getting stronger, too. So, again, what climate change is doing is it’s taking a natural pattern, a natural event, and it’s giving it that extra little bump of steroid, so to speak, just like a baseball player. So those heat waves are getting stronger, and they’re getting more frequent.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Forrest Wilder, you covered the drought, the recent drought, in Texas extensively. Could you talk about what the impact of that’s been?

FORREST WILDER: Right. I mean, one of the sort of startling things about all this flooding is we were just in a very bad drought for about six years or so, by some measures the most extreme drought that we’ve had in a very long time, a drought of record in places. For example, in 2011, we had a statewide average of about 14 inches of rainfall. In Austin, which is about in the middle of the state in terms of geography and in average rainfall, you know, we usually get about 33 inches. There were several million acres of ranchland and rural areas that burned. We had urban wildfires here in Austin that we’d never really had before. We had a state park that burned down. We had reservoirs that were—that ran dry. We had communities that ran out of water. We had very large agricultural losses, I think something on the order of $5 billion, $6 billion. It was basically—again, I think Texas is prone to drought. Texas is prone to flooding. But this drought was extraordinary. The heat, for example, again, in 2011, was off the charts. We had—here in Austin, we had 90 days of 100-plus—over 100 degrees Fahrenheit weather. And so, I think what we saw was, going from this extreme drought to extreme flooding kind of in a matter of about six years, some of the extremes that we know that we can expect under various climate change scenarios. So, it was kind of a—it was an object lesson for many of us about what we may be facing in the future under climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re from Wimberley. How—you’re talking to us, though, from Austin. How is it to cover your home community, and what this physically means, the people you’ve spoken to here?

FORREST WILDER: It’s difficult. You know, a lot of people I know have lost their homes, and I’m going this weekend to help with the cleanup of a family friend. And, you know, he was rescued at 4:00 in the morning in his home with water up to his neck. He was lucky to get out alive. It’s an older gentleman. He basically lost everything he has. I mean, we heard stories about some family friends of ours that live on the river. The road that they live on, theirs was the only house that was left. They talked about how they got up in the middle of the night, and they looked out the window, and they saw a car with headlights that was coming down the river. They heard people screaming on top of their roofs up there with flashlights. They get up the next morning, and all of those homes are gone. And the landscape, the environment has changed. There’s these huge cypress trees that line the Blanco River, just enormous trees, that are just—many of them are just gone. They’ve been uprooted or stripped of their bark, fallen over. So, it’s one of these disaster scenarios where you wake up and you look around, and nothing’s really the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer, speaking to us from Austin, from Wimberley, and Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, speaking to us from just outside Dallas. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.

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