A thought experiment: What if we lived in a world where the climate crisis directly threatened the lives of rich white guys? How different would the political debate be about cutting carbon and adapting to a superheated world?
These questions occurred to me the other day after reading an excellent new investigation into how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top federal public-health agency, has failed to address the public-health implications of climate change, doing virtually nothing to prevent the deaths of thousands of Americans from rising temperatures and other climate impacts.
The report, which was jointly produced by Columbia Journalism Investigates and the Center for Public Integrity, focuses on extreme heat, which has killed more than 10,000 Americans in the past decade or so — more than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other natural disasters. And it’s going to get worse. A recent study published in Nature Climate Change found that by 2100, if carbon emissions continue to grow, 74 percent of the world’s population will be exposed to heat waves hot enough to kill. Extreme heat, a.k.a. “the silent killer,” kills people slowly, without fanfare, without media attention. You’re unlikely to ever see a viral video of a black man saying “I can’t breathe” as he slowly dies from heat stroke.
As the report makes clear, the people the climate crisis kills — from extreme heat, from extreme storms, from extreme air pollution — are not rich white guys in Vineyard Vines pullovers. As I discovered in my own investigation for Rolling Stone into the dangers of extreme heat, the victims are overwhelmingly people on the margins of our society, invisible people – old, sick, poor, homeless, unlucky. Even the unborn. As one example of a typical victim of extreme heat, the report cites the case of Charlie Rhodes, a 61-year-old Army veteran who lived alone in a house near Phoenix. According to the report, Rhodes’ main connection to the world was Facebook: “Often, he posted several times a day. But as a heat wave blanketed the region in June 2016 — raising temperatures among the highest ever recorded — his posts stopped. Three weeks later, a pile of unopened mail outside his door prompted a call to police.
“When officers arrived, they were overcome by the odor of rotting garbage, worsened by the still-searing heat. Inside the home, they found the air conditioner broken and its thermometer reading 99 degrees. Rhodes lay dead in the bedroom, his body decomposing. The cause, his autopsy shows: ‘complications of environmental heat exposure.’”
The report – which I recommend you read in full – is a damning indictment of how the CDC neglected its duty to protect American citizens from a deadly crisis. It will come as no surprise to anyone who watched how the CDC has been sidelined and politicized by President Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still an astonishing dereliction of duty by an organization that has long been touted as the world’s premier public-health agency.
The report focuses on the CDC’s climate program, which was designed to help educate and staff local public-health departments, most of which are chronically underfunded and understaffed and don’t have the resources to prepare for climate-related hazards — less than half of these departments have plans to adapt to climate impacts.
The report does a great job of breaking down the CDC’s negligence on its climate program. Arizona’s health department, for example, serving a state of 7 million people, receives only around $200,000 a year to fund its climate team. Records also show that when North Carolina asked the CDC for its guidance and expertise on climate health threats, the agency failed to provide it. In Florida, where heat-related hospitalizations are on the rise, health officials have barred the state climate team from publicly acknowledging global warming’s link to heat. Then, with the CDC’s blessing, they evicted the program from the health department.
The CDC’s climate program wasn’t a top priority in the Obama administration, the report makes clear – although Obama did try to double the budget of the agency, only to have the increase red-lined by the Republican-controlled Congress. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has done everything it can to kill the initiative. It limps along now, with a budget of less than $10 million. As Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the few lawmakers who promoted the program, says in the report, “That somebody would go out of their way to pick off the only $10 million to spend on climate preparedness for health effects is kind of astonishing.”
When Trump rolls back air pollution rules, or opens up protected areas to commercial fishing, it’s easy to see the political constituency he’s trying to suck up to. But who is the constituency for letting people roast to death in overheated homes in Phoenix?
To put the CDC’s $10 million climate budget in perspective, Trump’s travel to Mar-a-Lago has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $64 million. This is the America we live in: We spend six times more flying Trump down to Florida to play golf than we do to protect 330 million Americans from the deadly health impacts of climate change.
Given the crazy shit that is going on in the world right now, and the scale of Trump’s crimes and lies, the failure of the CDC to do anything to protect Americans from the climate crisis might seem like a distant priority. But what astonishes me, and what this report makes clear, is how little effort and how little money it would take to save lives. We are not talking about the failure to find a cure for cancer here. We’re talking about a government that doesn’t care enough to take the basic steps to protect the lives of people from the most urgent and deadly public-health emergency of our time. Like COVID, the climate crisis doesn’t care if you are black or white, straight or gay, a supporter of Trump or Biden – if it gets the chance, it will kill you.
What is political is risk and vulnerability. That’s where race and power and wealth do matter. Rich white guys aren’t shot by cops. Rich white guys can flee to the Hamptons when COVID hits. Rich white guys can crank up the air-conditioning when it gets hot. But what about everyone else?
As a society, we pretty much agree that clean water and clean air are basic human rights, even if those rights are often corrupted by bad policy. But what about air-conditioning? For people living on the margins in Arizona or Texas, is it a basic human right? As the climate warms and climate impacts accelerate, are we just going to write-off people who can’t hack it?
The buried truth in this report is that living in a country where the government doesn’t care if an old man cooks in his Arizona home is not so different from living in a country where a black man is choked to death by a cop on the street. Both are evidence not only of a corrupt and broken political system, but of the corrupt and broken humanity of the people who run that system.