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As Hurricane Harvey devastates Houston, activists ask Sen. Jeff Flake to stop Trump's war on the environment

Tracey Osborne talks about the local effects of climate change.

Danyelle Khmara

Tracey Osborne talks about the local effects of climate change.

In Texas, thousands have driven from their homes thanks to nightmarish flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and a Houston dam has overflown for the first time.

As weather becomes more severe across the country and the world, in Arizona we see our own record extremes.

Last week, a group of Tucsonans took aim at Sen. Jeff Flake, calling on the freshman senator to start taking climate change seriously.

Community leaders gathered at the Native Seed Search on Thursday, Aug. 24, to talk about how climate change is already affecting our community and the responsibility Flake has, as an elected official, to do something about it.

They condemned Flake's vote for Scott Pruitt, helping him become head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA before becoming their boss, accepted political donations from the fossil fuel industry and is a known climate-change denier.

There's still time to mitigate the effects of climate change, Dr. Randall Friese, a state representative and trauma surgeon at the University of Arizona, said at Tucson's Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center.

"But if we continue on the current path of turning our backs on science, we won't be able to mitigate the effects," he said. "We'll actually probably be expediting the effects."

He said as a policy maker and a politician, he thinks the most important and basic step to safeguard the future of our planet is to appoint qualified people to advise the federal government on science.

As an example of what not to do, Friese brought up Sam Clovis, Trump's nominee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist, a job that requires a knowledge of science. But Clovis is not a scientist but a climate-change denier with outright misogynistic, racist, homophobic tendencies. The USDA's chief scientist makes decisions that affect renewable energy, natural resources and the environment.

"I'd just like to say to Sen. Flake, it is your responsibility through the Senate's process of advise and consent to reject this nominee," Friese said. "No president should have 'their people' if those nominees are unqualified to carry out the responsibilities of that appointed office, and a non-scientist has no qualifications to be chief scientist."

The Southwest has experienced more heat waves and drought over the last decade, said Tracey Osborne, assistant professor at the UA's School of Geography and Development. She said the region is predicted to become hotter and dryer, exacerbating wildfires, reducing agricultural yield and causing heat-related deaths.

"Climate change impacts will hit low-income communities and communities of color hardest," she said. "Among the communities with the lowest income in Arizona, Latinos and Native Americans are not only more likely to suffer from heat exposure, particularly those who work outdoors, but these communities disproportionately suffer from health issues associated with high-polluted industries."

Reverend Stephen Keplinger works at Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, offering food, showers and reprieve from the heat to the homeless and others in need. He saw this population suffer even more than usual this summer, with the extreme heat and rain.

"Climate change is already making life unlivable for the people we serve up at Grace St. Paul's everyday," he said. "We've had more heatstrokes this year in our disenfranchised population we serve than we have ever had. But what we all need to realize is this is only the beginning. I am not asking you to just respond to an immediate crisis. I'm asking you to see that we are facing the greatest challenge of our lifetimes."

Senior Vice President for the League of Conservation Voters Jennifer Allen comes from a family has lived in Arizona for four generations.

"Never have I been more concerned about their future, our state's future and the future of our nation than I have been over the past few months," said Allen, who is also a board member at Las Adelitas Arizona. "The Trump administration has filled the cabinet with people who either know next to nothing about the agencies that they now oversee or who are hell-bent to work to undermine the very work and responsibilities that those agencies implement."

Sens. Flake and McCain supported Pruitt's nomination to the EPA. Since then, he and Trump have proposed to cut EPA funding by 25 percent, and there's talk of him gutting the agency's environmental justice program by 78 percent, as well eliminating other programs that aim to protect communities of color.

The group of scientists, politicians and community leaders, one after the other, implored Flake to use his position of power to vote for policies that will mitigate climate change.

"You must stop turning your back on science," Friese said. "You must reject Sam Clovis' nomination and start moving us toward responsible solutions instead of perpetuating a failed argument. Join the rest of us and protect the environment. Join the rest of us in welcoming a green economy. Let's protect the environment and grow our economy. We can do both."

More by Danyelle Khmara

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