There’s a well-known French expression—“Après nous le déluge”—that conveys casual indifference to the future. The literal meaning is “After us, the flood.” The saying captures a devil-may-care attitude. Live for today, and don’t worry about tomorrow’s catastrophes.
When it comes to climate change, the Trump administration appears to have a very similar philosophy. Don’t worry about fossil fuel burning. Don’t worry about the increases in greenhouse gas levels that fossil fuel burning has caused. Don’t worry about the impact of increased greenhouse gas levels on our climate system. Don’t worry about the warming of the world’s oceans and land surface, the melting of the Arctic, the moistening of the atmosphere, the rising sea levels, the heavier downpours, the extension of the fire season and the changes in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves. Don’t worry about more severe Atlantic hurricanes. Don’t worry about the impacts of climate change on human health, on ecosystems, on agriculture and food security, on naval infrastructure or on access to clean water and air. “Après nous le deluge.” After us, the flood.
The flood is coming. By conservative estimates, global sea level will be at least two feet higher by the end of this century. This increase arises from human-caused warming of the oceans, the melting of land glaciers and the wasting of major ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Sea level rise will transform the surface of our planet. It will trigger the migration of millions who currently live at or close to sea level. Rising oceans will displace rich and poor, young and old, irrespective of race or religion. Extreme heat and drought will exacerbate this climate change diaspora. There is no sanctuary city, no sanctuary state and no sanctuary country.
At some gut level, most parents and grandparents don’t embrace an “Après nous le déluge” philosophy. Most do care about what comes “after us.” We care about whether our children and grandchildren will come of age on a planet with a relatively stable climate system. We hope they don’t grow up in a world with millions of climate change refugees. We want our descendants to have opportunities that we did not have. The opportunity to walk on the surface of a glacier. To set foot on the surface of the moon. To climb Olympus Mons on Mars. We want them to have the opportunity to be leaders, builders, teachers and visionaries. To be artists, musicians, writers and scientists. To be husbands and wives.
Keeping citizens safe from harm is an essential responsibility of government. Our elected leaders are charged with providing effective responses to hurricanes, droughts and floods. But they are also charged with mitigating the risks of future bad events. Keeping people safe is not only about the here and now. It is also about next year, the next decade and the rest of this century.
The Trump administration is failing in this most basic and essential responsibility. It is denying and ignoring the reality of human-caused climate change. It is removing protections on clean air and water. It is attempting to roll back fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles. The administration seeks to give power plants unfettered license to pollute. The president has initiated withdrawal of the United States from the community of nations seeking to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. U.S. citizens are told that it is “misplaced” to query Trump officials about links between climate change and hurricane properties; that it is “disrespectful” to request informed dialogue on the causes of the changing fire season.
Robert Mueller is currently investigating whether members of the Trump administration were complicit in a crime—Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. That investigation is ongoing. There is no doubt, however, of the administration’s complicity in an even more serious offense—the failure to acknowledge, address and mitigate the risks of human-caused climate change. There is no special counsel for that offense. Ultimately, history will decide how President Trump should be judged for embracing an “Après nous le déluge” philosophy while our planet burns.