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Alternative Facts During Deadly Disasters is History Repeating Itself

An apathetic government is as dangerous as a malevolent one. 

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Hurricane season isn’t over. There are still tropical storms churning in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening to make landfall. Scientists say it’s not a coincidence that three monster storms made landfall within a month: It’s climate change. President Donald Trump says it’s not, but he is wrong and he is pushing a deadly agenda. Trump’s “alternative facts” about the environment have cost Americans millions of dollars and threaten our lives.

Our country has been hammered by one deadly environmental disaster after another: Dozens of wildfires have charred western states. Deadly hurricanes have destroyed some of America’s most beautiful coastal towns, including some in Texas. It’s likely to take years for Houston, Port Aransas and areas in between to recover.

A new report from Congress’ top watchdog group, the Government Accountability Office, found that extreme weather and fires have cost taxpayers more than $350 billion over the past decade. And with Trump in office, that bill will surely grow. It’s a warning he’s unlikely to heed because his administration is so fond of pushing “alternative facts” about the environment.

And it doesn’t stop there. Trump called climate change “a myth.” He plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement and has rolled back the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on greenhouse gases. He nominated a toxicologist to the EPA who once endorsed high levels of pesticides in drinking water. And the administration refuses to admit that deadly storms such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma might have been bolstered by polluters.

An apathetic government in the wake of a deadly environmental disaster is a dangerous case of history repeating itself.

Sixty-five years ago, the British government encouraged unregulated use of a dirty fuel, sparking the world’s deadliest air pollution disaster, the Great Smog of 1952, which killed 12,000 Londoners.

In 1952, London was the world’s most populated city and the most industrial. More than 8 million people were crammed in an area about twice the size of New York City. December was the coldest month that year, and during the first week, London sat under an anticyclone for five days — a temperature inversion of high atmospheric pressure. Warm air trapped colder air on the ground, sealing a lid over the city.

Winston Churchill’s conservative government encouraged Londoners to buy the cheap, dirty coal that caused the worst of the smog. But the conservative government used its own “alternative facts” to skew how Londoners viewed air pollution.

The head of pollution investigations showed Churchill’s ministers a chart that showed that while 4,000 people died within weeks of the fog, another 8,000 died within the following three months, bringing the total to 12,000.

Churchill’s ministers panicked and changed the chart, the version that would be later released to the public. They admitted that 4,000 Londoners did die from the fog, but the additional 8,000 actually succumbed to an influenza epidemic.

It was a lie. There was never a flu epidemic during that period. Records prove it.

But Londoners in 1952 trusted their government. They hoped that such a long fog would never happen again. They hoped it was a fluke caused by a freak weather occurrence. But people continued to die, year after year. If they had only known the truth, maybe they would have elected politicians who might have forced a change.

Now, more than 60 years later, another world leader and his administration are risking our lives. There will be more super storms, more wildfires, more floods, more infrastructure damage, more related blows to local and regional economies, more money spent and more deaths. Trump and his administration stand in the way of scientists working to prevent even deadlier environmental disasters to come.

An apathetic government is as dangerous as a malevolent one — something voters should remember during next year’s midterm elections.

Kate Winkler Dawson is a senior lecturer of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express NewsAustin American Statesman, and the McAllen Monitor.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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