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Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard is an independent journalist who has covered politics and the environment for 20 years.
One Republican candidate's hellfire
Global warming-denying governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry can't escape a major reckoning at home.
Last Modified: 11 Oct 2011 14:34
One of Rick Perry's responses to the fires that raged Texas was 'It'll rain. It always does' [GALLO/GETTY]

George Bush Park burst into flames on September 13, one month to the day after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for president of the United States. In a summer of fierce wildfires across Texas, the George Bush Park blaze was the first big fire to erupt inside the city limits of a major metropolis - in this case, Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city and the headquarters of the oil and gas industry, a major contributor to the man-made global warming that Governor Perry famously insists does not exist.

The national media overlooked the George Bush Park fire, just as they ignored the link between climate change and the hellish summer Texas experienced, but the fire was big news in Houston. Local TV stations showed trees burning like torches, unleashing orange flames and black smoke. No evacuations were ordered, but guests at nearby hotels were spooked. “The hallways in the hotel here, you can hardly breathe,” said hotel guest Shawn Porter. “It’s in all the rooms. They’re getting filled with smoke.” 

"We'll be fine. As my dad [a retired cotton farmer] says, 'It'll rain. It always does.'"

- Texas Governor Rick Perry

It took helicopters and fire trucks three days to get the fire 95 per cent contained, according to the Texas Forest Service. By then, 1,623 acres had burned, an area the size of two Central Parks in New York City.

A week later, the park, which was named after the senior President Bush, was still recovering but back in service. Seeking relief from the 98-degree (37C) heat, a German Shepherd splashed in a pond named after Bush’s White House dog, Millie, while the pop-pop-pop of pistol shots rang out from one of the park’s practice ranges. In the burned area, however, the soil was still charred, the grass burned away. The trunks of shrubs and trees were as black and lifeless as charcoal.

Sizable though it was, the George Bush Park fire was a minor fire in the context of Texas 2011. Some 3.7 million acres of Texas have burned in the last 12 months, an area roughly equal to the state of Connecticut. Fires are still burning today, as the Texas Forest Service reports, yet Governor Perry has offered little in the way of relief but the power of prayer and positive thinking.

“We’ll be fine,” Perry said in mid-August. “As my dad [a retired cotton farmer] says, ‘It’ll rain. It always does.’”

Perry’s followers among evangelical Christians like to talk about the “end of days”, when the Lord will return to judge the living and the dead. The ferocious heat and drought that have been punishing Texas for the last 12 months made it seem that the end of days might well be approaching, though not exactly in the way Governor Perry and fellow evangelicals mean. As one region of the Lone Star State after another has been engulfed in flames and smoke, Texas appeared to have descended into the fires of hell.

Obama's take

When President Obama criticised Perry on September 25 as being “the governor of a state that is on fire [while he is] denying climate change”, Obama probably had in mind the fires in Bastrop, a bedroom community 25 miles east of Austin, the Texas capital. The Bastrop fires were so powerful, photogenic and devastating that they received not just statewide but national news coverage.

Responding to Obama, Perry spokesman Mark Miner told ABC News, “It’s outrageous President Obama would use the burning of 1,500 homes, the worst fires in state history, as a political attack.”

With Texas suffering the most severe one-year drought in the state’s history and the hottest summer in the entire nation’s history, firefighters were supremely challenged. In Bastrop, the heat of the fire “was so intense, our firefighters couldn’t get close enough to fight it [at first]. They had to shift to evacuation mode,” said Judge Ronnie McDonald, Bastrop’s highest-ranking local official.

“No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in the face of such extreme conditions,” said the Texas Forest Service.

The Bastrop fires destroyed 1,633 homes and caused two deaths, reported Judge McDonald as he led a Salon reporter on a tour of the disaster zone on September 23. Most of the homes that were destroyed had burned down to the ground, with nothing left standing but a stone foundation or chimney. Outside one house, a pickup truck had been scorched so intensely that its colour had changed to a ghostly white.

In contrast to the three days required to subdue the George Bush Park fire, the Bastrop fires “burned for two weeks before we reached more than 90 per cent containment”, McDonald added. As a result, more than 34,068 acres were scorched - an area larger than the entire city of San Francisco. The judge estimated that the town stands to lose 10 to 12 per cent of its tax base.

Meanwhile, three other major fires had combined with the Bastrop blaze to encircle the state capital with flames and smoke. Lee Leffingwell, the mayor of Austin, was monitoring a fire in Steiner Ranch, a hilly area west of the city, when he saw a “huge cloud of black and gray smoke” in the eastern sky, coming from the Bastrop fire.

“Standing at the Steiner Ranch fire, we were surrounded by fire on all four sides,” Leffingwell told Salon. “We could see the Bastrop fire to the east, there was a fire in Leander to the north and a fire in Spicewood to the south.”

“It looked like we’d been bombed,” added Leffingwell, who served as a US Navy pilot in Vietnam. “It looked like a war zone.”

Cutting the fire budget

It was the Bastrop blaze, and the high-profile media coverage of it, that led Perry to leave the campaign trail and return to Texas on September 6. The governor spent less than 24 hours in his fire-ravaged state. After a helicopter tour of the Austin area, he issued a statement calling the fires “as mean as I have ever seen” and expressing his thanks for “the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect Texans’ lives and property”.

But Perry treated those same brave men and women quite differently three months earlier. In the name of balancing Texas’ budget, Perry and the Republican super-majority in the legislature slashed fire protection spending, while also cutting spending for education, healthcare, parks and other state services. With a $10bn shortfall to accommodate and revenue increases off the table thanks to Perry’s antipathy to raising taxes, the arithmetic demanded huge spending cuts. Thus a state fund that volunteer fire departments across Texas have historically drawn on to buy firefighting equipment, supplies and protective clothing was cut by a staggering 72 per cent, from $25m a year down to $7m, according to Chris Barron, executive director the state Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas. The Texas Forest Service budget was also sharply cut, from $122m down to $75m.

“To cut is fine, but you can’t cut first responders - that’s a matter of life and death,” responded Texas state Senator Mario Gallegos, a Democrat who spent 22 years as a firefighter and paramedic in Houston before entering politics. “Volunteer fire departments are the backbone of fire protection in this state, and they need heavy equipment and other resources to do their job. If they had had those resources, maybe we could have stopped those fires in Bastrop sooner and saved another 100 or 200 homes.”

“The 2012-13 appropriation for the Volunteer Firefighter Assistance Account is comparable to that in previous budgets signed by Gov. Perry,” said Lucy Nashed, the governor’s deputy press secretary. “According to the Texas Forest Service, their funding level does not hinder their ability to fight fires ... The state has been and will continue to provide the Texas Forest Service and local officials with all available resources to fight these fires.”

Perry demanded these spending cuts in the spring of 2011, Gallegos added, “when there was no mystery that Texas was in the midst of a record drought and heat wave”. Indeed, it was in April that Perry convened the prayer rally where he urged fellow Texans to appeal for heavenly help against the drought. At the time, the governor was telling the legislature that voter identification control and sanctuary cities for immigrants “were emergency issues” that required immediate attention, recalled Gallegos, who added, “I come from a public safety background, and to me, maintaining the forest service and fire protection during a time of record heat and drought is a real emergency, not this other stuff”.

Meanwhile, Perry was ignoring the findings of mainstream climate scientists in his state, whose research indicates that while climate change was not the primary cause of the hellish summer of 2011, it was undoubtedly a contributing factor. “This summer’s temperatures were about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average in Texas,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. “My rough calculation is that about 74 per cent of those 5.4 degrees was due to La Niña [the oceanic-atmospheric phenomenon that influences weather patterns across the Western Hemisphere] and about nine per cent from greenhouse gas emissions.” These higher temperatures made the impact of the drought worse, Nielsen-Gammon explained, by increasing evaporation and reducing soil moisture - thereby making trees and grasses more vulnerable to fire - while also boosting the demand for water on the part of humans and livestock.

"Rick Perry is well to the right of Bush on climate change, well to the right even of the oil and gas industry."

“There are no skeptics involved in climate change science in Texas,” Nielsen-Gammon said, but public opinion is mixed. Appointed state climatologist in 2000 by Governor George W Bush, Nielsen-Gammon deals with skeptics by presenting the data and arguments on all sides of the issue before concluding, “Whether you believe this is what is going to happen with temperatures in the future or not, it’s a possibility you have to take seriously, because here’s the evidence”.

Nielsen-Gammon has never tried this approach on the state’s No. 1 climate skeptic, however. Governor Perry, he says, has never asked for a briefing on climate change, nor have his top advisors.

‘Seventh largest emitter’

It’s no shock that a Texas governor would resist taking action against climate change; the oil and gas industry has dominated the state’s economy and politics for decades. As a state, Texas emits the most greenhouse gases in the US; if it were a separate nation, it would rank as the world’s seventh largest emitter. When George W Bush left the governor’s mansion for the White House in 2000, he quickly became the most hostile president to climate action ever to occupy the Oval Office.

But Rick Perry is well to the right of Bush on climate change, well to the right even of the oil and gas industry. Bush accepted the science of climate change for the most part, he just didn’t like the policy implications and sought, quite successfully, to torpedo them. Likewise, even Exxon-Mobil, the biggest funder of climate disinformation activities over the past 20 years, no longer publicly disputes the science of climate change; it simply refuses to do anything about it. By contrast, Perry’s rhetoric on the issue channels the paranoid extremism of the Tea Party and its corporate founders, the Koch brothers.

In his book, “Fed Up!”, Perry doesn’t engage the arguments pro or con about climate science or policy. He simply asserts that “it’s all a contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight” and the economic effects of addressing it “could be absolutely devastating”.

As governor, Perry has been an enthusiastic booster of fossil fuel consumption and the corporations that profit from it. In 2005, he tried to fast-track construction of 11 new coal-fired power plants outside of Dallas that, as a complex, would have ranked as the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the US On the very same day that Perry signed his executive order, the retired chairman of the utility company pushing the project, TXU, gave Perry a $2,000 check. TXU as a whole contributed $104,000 to Perry’s 2006 election campaign, highlighting a recurring theme in Perry’s gubernatorial career that will be the focus of Part 2 of this special report: Perry’s willingness to do favours for big donors, including making Texas land available for a nuclear waste dump proposed by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, the second largest donor to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns.

“Governor Perry makes decisions in the best interest of Texas,” said deputy press secretary Nashed. “In the decade of the 2000′s Texas reduced ozone emissions by 27 per cent - more than any other state - and reduced SO2 emissions by 32 per cent and NOX emissions by 58 per cent, all while remaining the nation’s leading energy producer and protecting jobs.”

Perry’s handling of the fires of 2011 does not appear to have hurt him politically, at least not yet. Perhaps seeking to contain the problem, Perry joined with legislative leaders on Sept. 15 to provide an additional $5m to the volunteer fire department fund. It helps that neither the Texas nor the national media tend to connect the wildfires with climate change. The Houston Chronicle even came to Perry’s defense on his cuts to fire protection, saying he was falsely accused. Why? Well, the newspaper explained, because the cuts didn’t take effect until the new fiscal year on September 1 - an odd defence to offer, considering that the Bastrop mega-fire did take place after September 1, as did the George Bush Park fire.

The Texas Farm Bureau, which represents the state’s farmers and ranchers, also continues to support Perry’s budget decisions and handling of the drought, even though the drought has caused $5.2bn of losses to Texas agriculture, according to official calculations, a figure that is expected to rise to at least $8bn before year’s end. “Rick Perry has been a good governor, and we support elected officials making the decisions they need to make,” said Gene Hall, a genial former cattle rancher from east Texas who is the farm bureau’s director of public relations. Asked whether the bureau accepts the mainstream science view of global warming and climate change, Hall ignored the question of science in favour of condemning the policy of cap-and-trade, which the bureau vehemently opposes on the grounds that it would raise the costs of fossil fuel. “You just can’t produce a crop without putting diesel in the tractor and crossing the field a certain number of times,” explained Hall.

In the end, it is Perry’s combination of ideological fervour and his pay-to-play approach to politics that is most alarming about his potential ascension to president of the United States, according to critics. But friends and enemies alike agree that no one should underestimate the man.

“Rick Perry is not book smart, but he is very shrewd,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the executive director of Public Citizen Texas. “He’s one of the best politicians I’ve ever seen. He can connect with voters and he knows how to hire good staff and let them do what they need to do.”

But the drought and fires now afflicting Texas also illuminate the governor’s weaknesses, Smith added. “Perry is not a thinker,” Smith said. “He lacks intellectual curiosity. So if he became president and faced a climate change crisis like we have today in Texas, he wouldn’t be able to get past his ideological, knee-jerk reaction and think his way out of it. Ideology and donors drive his policy decisions, so he tends to insist that his policies are right no matter what reality might say.”

Mark Hertsgaard is an independent journalist who has covered politics and the environment for 20 years for leading outlets around the world, including Vanity Fair, Time, the Nation and the BBC. He is the author of six books, including most recently, “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth”.

A version of this article previously appeared on Salon.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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