In Harvey-hit county, some in GOP newly confront the climate
In the weeks since Hurricane Harvey devastated Jefferson County, Texas, some conservatives here found themselves wondering whether their own party can continue to deny the threat of climate change after this destruction it helped deliver to their doorstep
By CLAIRE GALOFARO
Thursday, October 12, 2017
PORT ARTHUR, Texas (AP) — The church was empty, except for the piano too heavy for one man to move. It had been 21 days since the greatest storm Wayne Christopher had ever seen dumped a year’s worth of rain on his town, drowning this church where he was baptized, met his high school sweetheart and later married her.
He had piled the ruined pews out on the curb, next to water-logged hymnals and molding Sunday school lesson plans and chunks of drywall that used to be a mural of Noah’s Ark. Now he tilted his head up to take in the mountain of rubble, and Christopher, an evangelical Christian and a conservative Republican, considered what caused this destruction: that the violent act of nature had been made worse by acts of man.
“I think the Lord put us over the care of his creation, and when we pollute like we do, destroy the land, there’s consequences to that,” he said. “It might not catch up with us just right now, but it’s gonna catch up. Like a wound that needs to be healed.”
Jefferson County, Texas, is among the low-lying coastal areas of America that could lose the most as the ice caps melt and the seas warm and rise. At the same time, it is more economically dependent on the petroleum industry and its emissions-spewing refineries than any other place in the U.S. Residents seemed to choose between the two last November, abandoning a four-decade-old pattern of voting Democratic in presidential elections to support Donald Trump.
Then came Hurricane Harvey. Now some conservatives here are newly confronting some of the most polarizing questions in American political discourse: What role do humans play in global warming and the worsening of storms like Harvey? And what should they expect their leaders — including the climate-skeptic president they helped elect — to do about the problem now?
Answers are hard to come by in a place where refineries stand like cityscapes. Nearly 5,000 people work in the petroleum industry. Some have described the chemical stink in the air as “the smell of money” — it means paychecks, paid mortgages and meals.
Christopher, like most people in Jefferson County, believed that global warming was real before the storm hit. Post-Harvey, surrounded by debris stretching for block after block, he thinks the president’s outright rejection of the scientific consensus is no longer good enough.
But how do you help the climate without hurting those who depend on climate-polluting industries?
“It’s a Catch-22 kind of thing,” he said. “Do you want to build your economy, or do you want to save the world?”
“Steroids for storms” is how Andrew Dessler explains the role global warming plays in extreme weather. Climate change didn’t create Hurricane Harvey or Irma or Maria. But Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, and most scientists agree that warming and rising seas likely amplify storms that form naturally, feeding more water and more intensity as they plow toward land.
“It will be 60 inches of rain this time, maybe 80 inches next time,” Dessler said of Harvey’s record-setting rainfall for any single storm in U.S. history.
As a private citizen and candidate, Trump often referred to climate change as a hoax, and since taking office he and his administration have worked aggressively to undo policies designed to mitigate the damage. He announced his intention to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a global accord of 195 nations to reduce carbon emissions, and his administration has dismantled environmental regulations and erased climate change data from government websites. This month, his Environmental Protection Agency administrator promised to kill an effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired plants.
Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale University researcher, traces the politicization of the climate to 1997, when then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore brokered a commitment on the world stage to reduce greenhouse gases. The political parties have cleaved further apart ever since, and climate change denial reached a fever pitch as the Tea Party remade the GOP during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Americans tend to view the issue through their already established red-versus-blue lens, Leiserowitz said. But while there are fractions on each extreme, the majority still fall somewhere along a scale in the middle.
A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll finds that 63 percent of Americans think climate change is happening and that the government should address it, and that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the way Trump is handling the issue. Most Americans also think weather disasters are getting more severe, and believe global warming is a factor.
As the downpour from Hurricane Harvey stretched into its second day, with no end in sight, Joe Evans watched from the window of his home in the Jefferson County seat of Beaumont, and an unexpected sense of guilt overcame him: “What have we been doing to the planet for all of these years?”
Evans, a Republican, once ran unsuccessfully for local office. He ignored climate change, as he thought Republicans were supposed to do, but Harvey’s deluge left him wondering why. When he was young, discussions of the ozone layer were uncontroversial; now they’re likely to end in pitched political debate.
“I think it’s one of those games that politicians play with us,” he said, “to once again make us choose a side.”
Evans voted for Trump, but he’s frustrated with what he describes as the “conservative echo chamber” that dismisses climate change instead of trying to find a way to apply conservative principles to simultaneously saving the Earth and the economy. Even today, some Republicans in the county complain about Gore and the hypocrisy they see in elite liberals who jet around the world, carbon emissions trailing behind them, to push climate policies on blue-collar workers trying to keep refinery jobs so they can feed their families.
Evans isn’t sure if the disastrous run of weather will cause climate change to become a bigger priority for residents here, or if as memories fade talk of this issue will, too.
“I haven’t put so much thought into it that I want to go mobilize a bunch of people and march on Washington,” he said. “But it made me think enough about it that I won’t actively take part in denying it. We can’t do that anymore.”
Most in Texas didn’t believe climate change existed when Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, began evangelizing about the issue years ago. Now studies estimate that 70 percent of Texans believe that the climate is changing, and 53 percent believe that has been caused by human activity. Most resistance she hears now is not with the science itself but over proposed solutions that mean government intrusion and regulation.
Jefferson County’s refineries produce 10 percent of the gasoline in the United States, 20 percent of diesel and half of the fuel used to fly commercial planes, said County Judge Jeff Branick, a Democrat who voted for Trump and then switched his party affiliation to Republican, in part because of his disagreement with the Democratic Party’s climate policies.
Branick doesn’t deny that climate change exists, but he calls himself a cheerleader for the petroleum industry and believes environmental policies are “job killers.”
John Sterman, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, said addressing climate change will invariably lead to gradual job losses in the fossil fuels industry. But communities have lost a dominant industry before, and those able to diversify can prosper. Jefferson County could look to the renewable energy industry, with jobs that require many of the skills refinery workers have, he said. Texas already produces more wind power than any other state.
Angela Lopez’s husband works in a refinery, so she understands the worry of the economic cost of addressing global warming. But her county is nicknamed “cancer alley” for its high levels of disease that residents have long attributed to living in the shadow of one of the largest concentrations of refineries in the world.
“It’s our livelihood, but it’s killing us,” Lopez said, standing in what used to be her dining room. Now her house in Beaumont is down to the studs. As Harvey’s floodwaters rose, she tried to save what she could. She piled the dresser drawers on the bed and perched the leather couch up on the coffee table. It did no good. The water didn’t stop until it reached the eaves, and the Lopezes lost everything they own.
Just about all of her relatives are conservatives, and indeed the political divides in the county run deep: Even as most of the communities along the Gulf Coast turned red years ago, Jefferson County clung to its Democratic roots. The county is ethnically diverse —41 percent white, 34 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic — with a historically strong union workforce. Trump won Jefferson by just 419 votes.
“To come up with real solutions, you have to be honest with yourself about what causes something to happen,” Lopez said. “It’s not just because some storm came, it was bad and unprecedented. It was unprecedented for a reason, so we have to acknowledge that and start working toward being better. And part of that conversation should be climate change.”
On a porch outside another ruined house nearby, two neighbors who both lost everything to Harvey started having that conversation.
Gene Jones, a truck driver who didn’t vote, asked Wilton Johnson, a Trump supporter, if he thought climate change intensified the storm.
“I don’t think so, no,” Johnson said.
“You don’t? You don’t think about the chemical plants and the hot weather? You don’t think that has anything to do with it?”
“I can understand people believing that,” Johnson replied. But he blames natural weather cycles for upending their lives so completely.
Jones now lives in a camper in his driveway; Johnson’s father has been sleeping in a recliner in his yard to ward off looters.
Johnson feels like he’s gone through the stages of grief. At first, as he fled his home, he denied how devastating the storm might be. Then he got angry, when he realized nothing could be saved — not the family photos or the 100-year-old Bible that fell apart in his hands. He grew depressed and now, finally, he thinks he’s come to accept this new reality as something that just happened because nature is not always kind, and never has been.
And he remains unshaken in his support for Trump’s environmental agenda.
“We need to be responsible human beings to the Earth, but at the same time we shouldn’t sacrifice the financial freedoms,” he said. “What good is a great environment if we’re poor and living like cavemen? And vice versa, I understand the other side of that: What’s great about living in luxury when you can’t go outside?
“I just don’t think we should look at two storms and say, ‘We’re ruining the Earth! Shut the plants down!‘”
When Wayne Christopher was a boy in Jefferson County, it got so hot he remembers frying eggs on the sidewalk. It has always been hot here, and there have always been hurricanes.
But it seems to him that something is different now. There is a palpable intensity in the air, in the haze that hangs over the interstate. The region has warmed about two degrees in his lifetime, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and annual rainfall has increased by about 7 inches on average. Christopher counts the number of times a beach road he’s driven on all his life has had to be rebuilt because the ocean overtook it.
“The sea keeps moving in — water rising, land disappearing or eroding or whatever you want to call it — it’s happening,” said Christopher, who is 66 now and retired after toiling more than 40 years for the railroad. “I think Mother Nature can come back, but there’s a point to where, if we just keep on and keep on, I don’t know if she can come back.”
He thinks the president he helped put in office should do something: take the threat seriously, research before he talks or tweets, not dismiss established science as a hoax because acknowledging it’s real would mean acknowledging that something must be done.
But like many others here, Christopher is not pushing to stick with the Paris climate agreement or other global coalitions because he’s not sure it’s fair that the United States should invest in clean energy when other counties that pollute might not. He worries that could cause more job losses to overseas factories, put a squeeze on the middle class and forfeit a slice of American sovereignty.
His wife, who also supported Trump, cocked her head as she thought about that sentiment.
“I can see the pros, I can see the cons,” Polly Christopher said. “But if you were to simplify it to your children, and they say, ‘Well, everybody else is doing it, if I do it what difference is it going to make?‘ you would just get on them and say, ‘You’ve got to do the right thing. Right is right, and wrong’s wrong.‘”
For weeks, the couple have been gutting Memorial Baptist Church, a place they consider their home. The congregation dwindled over time to about 45, mostly older people, and it was so hard to make ends meet the church canceled a $19,000-a-year flood insurance policy just two months before Harvey hit. Now it could cost some $1 million to rebuild, meaning the church may never be rebuilt at all.
So when Christopher’s granddaughter came by to help, found the piano in the otherwise empty sanctuary, sat down and started to play, he was overcome with a sense of grief.
“In my head I was thinking the whole time, this could be the last time that piano is played inside the auditorium,” he said. Then she started to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound ...”
“It did something to me,” he said.
Both he and his wife believe President Trump has a responsibility to look at the destruction Harvey left them with and act accordingly.
“He’s got a business mind. Whatever it takes to make money, that’s what he’s going to do to make America great again,” Christopher said, and that’s why he voted for Trump. “But it does make me wonder if he looks at global warming as a real harm. Because you can make all the money in the world here. But if you don’t have a world, what good is it going to do you?”
Science writer Seth Borenstein, multimedia journalist Martha Irvine and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.