Here in Tennessee, as floods destroy homes and families, it’s clear our Republican leaders are not on our side

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Brian Mitchell, right, looks through the damaged home of his mother-in-law along with family friend Chris Hoover in Waverly on Sunday (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Brian Mitchell, right, looks through the damaged home of his mother-in-law along with family friend Chris Hoover in Waverly on Sunday (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“The last time I saw him was when we put him to bed,” Kalaub Brian McCord said of his stepson, two-year-old Kellen Cole Burrow. Little Kellen is one the many still missing after floods ripped through Middle Tennessee this weekend. He was in his mother’s arms when the rapids swept him away.

Thousands more have been affected, losing homes and vehicles and precious family heirlooms. Rural, wooded, and teaming with rivers and streams, floods are a regular occurrence in Humphreys County, about 70 miles west of Nashville. “This is worse than any of them,” retired firefighter Richard Wheeler told the New York Times. “This is the worst one.”

He isn’t wrong. As of this morning, 22 people are reported dead after what experts believe was a record amount of rain. This recent flooding is but the latest in a spate of severe weather events to ravage our state. Last year, a series of tornadoes devastated part of Middle Tennessee, while “historic flooding” — according to the National Weather Service — affected several counties.

With all this evidence and the scientific consensus around manmade climate change, it is unforgivable that our politicians continue to feign ignorance. During his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee had no climate agenda to offer voters. Instead, he campaigned on a platform of deregulation.

Though repeatedly vowing to protect the environment, Lee has done little in the way of combating climate change. This is hardly surprising, given the man himself likes to state publicly that he’s too stupid to understand the science. In 2019, he claimed he wasn’t “smart enough” to know what causes climate change. I somehow doubt that is true; even his own state government acknowledges that climate change is real and poses a threat to Tennessee.

Whether he is too dumb or too craven to admit the truth I cannot say with certainty. But the fact that Bill Lee won’t say “climate change is manmade” and commit the needed resources to protecting Tennessee from being ravaged by it should disqualify him from office. He is Greta Thunberg, though, compared to our two US Senators.

Lats year, Senator Bill Hagerty campaigned on a platform of deregulation and unbridled environmental exploitation. He pledged to “do everything in his power to stop the Green New Deal and fight socialist attempts to ban fracking.” Hagerty also promised to repeal renewable fuel standards, to scale back environmental regulations, and to promote the development and exploration of fossil fuels. It is hard to imagine a more anti-environmental agenda.

Our other Senator, Marsha Blackburn, is equally as bad. She has spent her entire political career denying or downplaying man’s role in climate change. Blackburn has made a hobby of denigrating the Green New Deal, opposing such climate-friendly measures as cap-and-trade, and co-sponsoring bills in Congress to eliminate funding to help low-income people weatherize their homes and preventing federal dollars to be spent on the Paris climate agreement.

Despite Republican denials, however, there is incontrovertible proof that the Tennessee climate is changing. My grandfather and other “old timers” here in East Tennessee frequently comment on how much more precipitation we receive now than when they were children in the 1930s and 1940s. This tracks with the science; data shows Tennessee is growing warmer and wetter.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, annual precipitation in the Volunteer State has increased by 5 percent since the first half of the 20th century. It is likely to increase further over the coming decades. In 2016, the EPA warned that “floods may be more frequent” in Tennessee, and that we must begin planning accordingly.

Meanwhile, other severe weather events are becoming increasingly common. Between 2000 and 2020, the average annual number of tornados reported in the South, including Tennessee, rose by more than 50 percent. “Of the combined 117 US tornado deaths in 2019 and 2020, 113 were in Southern states,” according to an in-depth report by Dinah Voyles Pulver and Doyle Rice for USA Today. Twenty-seven of those were in Tennessee, 19 of those in a single tornado last year.

These aren’t just figures. Each of those 27 — in addition to the 22 people lost in the recent flooding — is, or rather was, a beloved human being. A fellow Volunteer, as we’re called down here. These people had families and friends, lives and dreams. As the climate crisis worsens, and severe weather events become more frequent in Tennessee, more of us are going to perish because of the inaction of today’s government officials.

Frankly, our people deserve better. This includes passing legislation which will help protect our environment and prevent the worst effects of climate change from coming to pass, while also funding initiatives to help mitigate the threat already present. Such initiatives could include reducing the release of CO2 into our atmosphere,restricting development in flood-prone areas, creating greenways to protect streams and flood plains, and relocating buildings and roads prone to flooding. None of this is some socialist Green New Deal conspiracy. These are all suggestions taken directly from the Tennessee state government.

Climate change is real, it is happening, and it is affecting our people. Twenty-two Tennesseans are dead, many more are missing, and the threat is not subsiding. It is time for our politicians to recognize the threat climate change poses to Tennessee and the rest of the South.

Time is not on our side. And right now, neither are our Republican leaders.

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