Last Thursday was an ironic day. It was the day that President Trump announced our nation’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was also the first day of the 2017 hurricane season, which is expected to be one of the strongest of recent years.
President Trump’s decision comes on the heels of the publication of his 2018 Budget Proposal, which announced the most draconian cuts to U.S. spending on the environment and foreign and humanitarian assistance proposed by a president since the second World War. These include cuts the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA’s critical Earth Science program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration itself—including their weather satellite—and to a myriad of environmental programs whose objective was to lower emissions and protect communities.
My organization often finds itself at the nexus of climate change, poverty, hunger, displacement and disaster. We provide support to vulnerable communities who face these challenges. This includes, for example, support to farmers in Central America, so that they can grow more drought resistant food, assistance for flood affected communities in Cambodia and Myanmar, and technical assistance to community groups who want to generate power by using renewable resources.
We also respond to disasters in the United States. Last year, when torrential floods battered 40,000 homes in Louisiana, causing more than 85,000 people to apply for federal aid, we worked with local churches to help. In recent years, we have reached families in Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and several other states where tornadoes, floods and superstorms have wreaked havoc.
Disasters are costly. In the United States alone, Katrina (2005) cost $128 billion; Rita (2005) cost $12 billion; Wilma (2005) cost $20 billion; Ike (2008) cost $25 billion; and Sandy (2012) caused $68 billion in damage. Internationally, the damage caused is almost incalculable: in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan—considered the most destructive cyclone to ever hit mainland in the world—affected more than seven million individuals, displaced nearly 4.4 million families and caused $34 billion worth of damage. Disasters cause rich and poor countries alike to divert resources from their development plans to emergencies response—at the cost of the taxpayer. In their 2014 research paper, Columbia University researchers Hsian and Jian, after researching tropical cyclones between 1950 – 2008, concluded that national incomes decline after major disasters “and do not recover within 20 years.” Cyclones, they state, can have the same slowing down on national economies as banking or currency crises and political disasters.
Pragmatism and good stewardship therefore require that we all prepare for climate change. Recent polls conducted by Quinnipiac University show that 76 percent of the American public is concerned about climate change. Expectations are increasing that the governments will show concern for the common good. This is precisely why Mr. Trump’s recent actions on climate and the environment make no sense. Instead of investing multilateral mechanisms like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr. Trump has decided to stop supporting them. Instead of equipping poor countries to build their own infrastructure and climate resilience through the Green Climate Fund, he has decided to stop funding it. Instead of working with 194 countries who all agree that this is a priority, he has decided to withdraw from it.
These policies also come at a time when America’s traditional support to vulnerable countries through foreign assistance and refugee resettlement is also at risk.
Let’s consider Haiti for a moment. In October, Hurricane Matthew decimated one of its most productive agricultural areas, even after a three-year drought had already wiped out up to 80 percent of crops and livestock. One-third of the population is now food insecure; up to 280,000 people are selling land and homes to survive. Many still depend on the remittances provided by almost 60,0000 Haitians, who after the January 2010 earthquake were granted Temporary Protected Status by the Obama administration. Yet, despite the entreaties of hundreds of faith leaders, dozens of civil society organizations—and the Haitian Ambassador himself—who all asked for a minimum of 18 months extension to TPS, Secretary Kelly recently granted only six additional months, while maintaining that conditions in Haiti have significantly improved. Similarly, by attempting to prevent the resettlement of refugees from Somalia, Yemen and Sudan, he is closing the door to people from famine afflicted countries, while at the same time proposing to reduce the budget for humanitarian assistance that could help them at home.
Mr. Trump’s responsibility is to lead not just for today but to consider the long-term implications of his decisions. The cumulative impact of his recent actions on climate, refugees, poverty assistance and immigration are terribly short-sighted. Combined, these choices represent Mr. Trump’s utter determination to reverse the objectives of the Obama administration’s domestic and international policy. By doing so, he is turning his back on the poor and vulnerable everywhere. They will surely bear the burden of his decisions.