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Just Before Harvey, Trump Admin Revoked Rules Requiring New Infrastructure to Be Climate Resilient

StoryAugust 29, 2017
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Two weeks ago today, President Trump signed a widely overlooked executive order to revoke Obama-era standards that required federal infrastructure projects like hospitals to factor in scientific projections for the effects of climate change, such as increased flooding. Critics say the reversal will put more lives in danger by exposing U.S. infrastructure to the kind of damage inflicted by hurricanes and superstorms, including Harvey, Sandy and Katrina. Obama’s order marked a rare climate change measure that was praised by both conservative and progressive groups. Trump announced the reversal during the now-infamous press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower that was largely overshadowed by his remarks defending the white supremacist protesters behind the violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. We speak with John Nichols, political writer for The Nation. His new book, “Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America,” is out today.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Two weeks ago today, President Trump signed an executive order to revoke Obama-era standards that required federal infrastructure projects like hospitals to factor in scientific projections for the effects of climate change, like increased flooding and rising sea levels. Critics say the reversal exposes U.S. infrastructure to the kind of damage inflicted by hurricanes and superstorms, including Harvey, Sandy and Katrina, and will put more lives in danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump announced the rollback during the now-infamous press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower that was largely overshadowed by remarks defending the white supremacist protesters behind the violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Well, for more, we’re joined by John Nichols, political writer for The Nation, his new article headlined “How Donald Trump and Elaine Chao Sold Off Flood-Control Policy to the Highest Bidders.” John’s new book, Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the headline of your latest piece, John.

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. And really, everything we’ve talked about today—or, I’ve been listening in—comes together in this. Here we had Dr. Bullard say when you have out-of-control development, no zoning, no planning for the future, and then what we just heard, you know, what we know is coming as regards flood surges, not just on the oceans, but on our rivers across the country—this goes inland.

President Obama in 2015 did something very logical. He was a little late to the game. I wish he had done it many years before. But he issued an order for flood management—or flood risk management. It was just a standard that was set. It said when we pour trillions of dollars—at least the trillion Trump’s talking about on an infrastructure program—when we pour this huge amount of money into infrastructure—roads, bridges—the roads and bridges we might use to evacuate—hospitals, all sorts of things that we build—we ought to make sure that they are climate-resilient.

I want people to learn that term. I write about it in the—I write a lot of this in the book. The term “climate-resilient” means that you’re building, anticipating, tragically, that you are going to have more flooding, that you are going to have more crises like this. On August 15th, with virtually no notice—because Trump went off the rails on issues of race—on August 15th, the reason that Elaine Chao, his secretary of transportation, was standing behind him through that whole horrible press conference, was because the real thing they were doing that day was gutting out and ending Obama’s order. And what the Sierra Club says is, this is climate denial at its most dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, Secretary Chao, secretary of transportation, also happens to be the wife of the Senate’s most powerful person, and that is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And what this, overall, means for Houston, as President Trump now heads to Texas?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what this means for Houston—look, we should always be careful about this. What Obama did and what Trump has done, these are things looking to the future. So a lot of the crises in Houston have been in place for a long time. But what this says for a place like Houston is that as money is poured in to rebuild, there is not going to be a federal standard that says it has to be climate-resilient. There’s not going to be a standard that says that the next stuff you build has to be able to handle what we know is coming.

And this is—I got onto this in writing the book because I looked a lot at Elaine Chao. She is a careerist. She comes back whenever there’s a Republican president. And she was at the Department of Labor years ago, got horrible marks there for literally ruining programs within it, or undermining them. Now, she is the person who is going to be overseeing a $1 trillion infrastructure program, which many Democrats will probably enthusiastically support.

What I’m saying in this article, what I say in the book is, as regards all these departments and all these agencies, we’ve got to look at what they’re doing, because if we don’t, we’re going to go through what should be a learning experience—what’s just happened in Houston, what we’re hearing from all over the country—this isn’t the only flooding in the country today—what should be a learning experience, we’re not learning at all. In fact, we are literally going backward with Donald Trump, and, more importantly, with people like Elaine Chao.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, John, in your book, you have sections—it’s basically like a baseball card summary of all the members of the administration.

JOHN NICHOLS: You would get that, Juan. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the privateers—you go into Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Seema Verma, Sonny Perdue, all of these folks that the administration has hired, and you give little snapshots of their privateering approach.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. And Elaine Chao is the first one on the list. And, you know, this is the interesting thing: Our media does such a lousy job today of covering the whole of a presidency. It looks at the individual. What did Donald Trump tweet today? We don’t look at the people who are actually competent. I may disagree with them on—but they know how to run an agency—former governors, former Cabinet secretaries, who Trump has put into these positions.

Well, they have some universals. They are generally climate deniers. They are generally deeply tied to corporate industries, especially the fossil fuel industry. Just put one simple fact together. On any given day, Scott Pruitt in EPA is undermining climate science, climate responses. Rex Tillerson is dismantling our international response on this issue, related to some of the things we talk about.

But Elaine Chao comes out way at the top of this list. That’s why she starts the chapter, because she is going to be very central to building the future of this country—literally, the promise of infrastructure, which Democrats and Republicans agree on. If we don’t do that with climate justice, as Dr. Bullard talked about, if we don’t do that with functional structural soundness, and if we don’t do that with some economic common sense—you know, in the article I wrote for The Nation for today—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

JOHN NICHOLS: —free market think tanks were with Obama on this issue. They were saying, “Yeah, if you’re going to pour billions of dollars into stuff, you should really make sure that it will survive.” And this administration is rejecting it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go through that deck of baseball cards, and we’re going to post that online at democracynow.org. Who are the people in the administration? What do they represent? John Nichols, political writer for The Nation. His new book, out today, Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America.

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John Nichols: “Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America”

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