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Conflicts of interest could, possibly, trump climate change denial

Mar a Lago (credit: Library of Congress)
Mar-a-Lago (credit: Library of Congress)

Over the weekend, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach country club, Mar-a-Lago, was the location where he interviewed two candidates for National Security Advisor. The previous weekend, the club’s open dining room was where Trump and his advisors discussed how to respond to a North Korean missile test. Trump’s insistence on conducting government business at his beach club—after doubling membership rates—sits at the top of a rather lengthy list of his conflict of interests.

Mar-a-Lago is a national historic landmark. It is the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, a leading socialite of the post-war era who owned General Foods. The estate can also become the primary motivating force for bringing a climate denier like Donald Trump to finally accept scientific facts.

In three decades, parts of Trump’s beach club could be at least a foot under the ocean’s surface, according to an analysis commissioned last year by the Guardian. But the immediate risk is nothing to sneeze at—much of it could face a 3-6 feet storm surge the next time a tropical storm or hurricane strikes. While the main building should be just about safe from anything under a category 2 hurricane through 2046, the ongoing surge of property damage could compel just about anyone to reconsider whether climate change is real or a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

As a government executive, Trump wants to move quickly to roll back regulations that would slow down climate change. He is preparing executive orders to rewrite regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants and end a moratorium on leasing coal mines on federal lands. He signed legislation last week that rolled back regulations on how coal mines dispose of waste. And his new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has been at the vanguard of lawsuits challenging EPA’s pollution regulations.

It’s fairly obvious that Trump has not considered the climate-change risk to his real estate holdings in Florida and elsewhere, even though 13 of his 17 golf resorts and associated real estate developments and four additional hotels are on or near the ocean. But perhaps he should. At least his peers are starting to do so.

Two thirds of real estate developers in South Florida surveyed in 2016 by the Miami Herald were concerned about climate change and sea-level rise, a 10 percent increase from the 2015 survey despite an exceptionally weak hurricane season between the two surveys. And then, after the 2016 survey, the 2016 hurricane season featured several strong storms that pummeled Central Florida—including Orlando, where he held a campaign-style rally over the weekend.

Even though they may be worried about sea-level rise, however, many developers will not change their business practices until government regulations compel them to, according to one developer I spoke with. The real estate industry, he told me, is like any other sector in that it depends on the government to set up a level playing field in which they compete.

Trump is, of course, in the rare position of establishing regulations that impact his businesses. He can certainly push for weaker rules that allow more flood-prone developments to be built. And he has already shown an eagerness to weaken regulations that restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

But what will happen when the 2017 hurricane season hits? And, if 2017 is a dud like 2015—which forecasters are starting to predict already—what about 2018? Or 2019 or 2020? Can a major hurricane cause major damage to Mar-a-Lago and then, amidst the resulting media storm, finally turn on the switch that compels Trump to protect his real estate holdings?

If so, he would not be able to reinstate everything that he rolled back, of course. And the majorities in Congress who welcome his climate denial would balk if he tried to stem the tide of denial. But really, what choice does he have? His business empire is heavily tilted towards the coast. He can increase the federal insurance programs that protect coastal residential areas from flooding or build sea walls and other infrastructure to help his properties weather the coming storms, but sooner or later he will have to either address the problem at its root or divest from the coast.

It is in his long term interest to reduce the risk his investments face from climate change. And his short-term interests would benefit as well. Mar-a-Lago members, after all, are paying $200,000 upfront plus $14,000 every year to watch foreign policy in action. They’re not paying to play tennis while wearing floaties.

Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems.

Dan’s career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean. 

Dan is an expert in leveraging publicity to help propel public policy campaigns. He has led communications efforts at several multinational NGOs and has also consulted for a wide variety of non-governmental organizations. For more of his writing please visit dkcontent.net.

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