The more things change…

The lessons of Katrina and Rita -- sorted by ideology

Two category 5 hurricanes developed within less than four weeks in the Gulf of Mexico. In the 20th century, only three Cat5 storms ever reached the coast of the US. The world has been looking on and hoping that Americans would finally see the light and change their behavior. They want us to start dealing with global warming, lowering our consumption of finite resources, and sign the Kyoto protocol. And while we are at it, they also wouldn't mind if an inordinate number of poor and blacks didn't drown in our floods. They had better not hold their breath.

Hurricane Rita on September 22, 2005. Credit: Nasa

When the people at the headquarters of Climate Pollution finally come to their senses, the international community must be able to extend a welcome to the US in the form of a finished proposal for the future of international climate protection. The German government is ready.

The famous last words of Mr. Trittin, Germany's Environmental Minister, on August 29, 2005 -- the day that Katrina hit the US. On September 18, Germans voted him and his coalition out of office. Germany got rid of its government faster than the White House could come to its senses, for the lessons that Americans are learning from Katrina and Rita only show that nothing has changed.

Didn't Bush say that race and class will not play a role in the redevelopment of the coast? And that governmental agencies should become less bureaucratic so they can work better together? In mid-September, it became clear what he meant by that when the Davis-Bacon Act was done away with. This Act was passed in 1931, only a few years after the great flood on the Mississippi River in 1927. It stipulates that "locally prevailing wages" must be upheld when the government calls for tenders. The goal is to prevent government projects from lowering wages; the government should take the lowest bidder, but not at the cost of workers.

When the Gulf Coast is redeveloped, the already low local wages will be underbid. Republicans have less finally managed to temporarily (but indefinitely!) suspend a law they have been trying to do away with for more than 10 years. What is the US government trying to tell people on the Gulf Coast? That the working poor in the area, many of whom have already lost everything, should be glad to be getting work at all?

Republican Senator Mike Pence of Indiana made it clear that his people want to "to bring conservative, free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast," which is to become a "magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was." The Wall Street Journal has also reported that some of the changes that Republicans have been working towards for a long time, such as doing away with the estate tax (which they want everyone to call the "death tax" so that no one will be able to identify with it) and new "tax-advantaged enterprise zones" on the Gulf Coast, are prominent items on the agenda.

But the Wall Street Journal does not want to appear to be partisan, which is why the paper also lists some of the Democrats' proposals that, as the paper puts it, "suit their ideology":

  1. Hurricane refugees are to continue to receive Medicaid
  2. Students who have to switch schools are to receive $2,500
  3. Victims of the hurricane will have a grace period of 180 days to repay loans

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"Unsustainable"

Sustainability is a hot buzzword these days, but it means different things depending on the speaker's political agenda. Naturally, a lot of "Greens" in the US are talking about how the city of New Orleans can be rebuilt as a sustainable city. Everybody basically agrees that New Orleans cannot simply be built up as it was before in the swamp. In addition to concerns about how to protect the new city better without breaking the bank (pardon the pun), a lot of environmentalists see Katrina as an opportunity to finally make urban planning sustainable in the US: less urban sprawl, more green spaces. New Orleans is to live in harmony with the swamp. Holland, which once used pumps developed in New Orleans to 'dewater' itself, now serves as a model for some New Orleanians.

One major proposal for the wetlands surrounding New Orleans is called Coast 2050. This plan has been around since 1998, but environmentalists are hoping that they can finally get it through now. But we begin to see how few environmentalists there are when we take a look at the Democratic Party. Democratic Senator Mike Doyle has also been using the word "unsustainable" lately, but he's not been talking about urban planning. He thinks gas prices are unsustainable.

Indeed, already distressed by the sight of tens of thousands of stranded storm victims at the Superdome, Europeans are now bawling their eyes out when they read that Americans in many places are still paying more than three dollars per gallon - almost half as much as you pay in Europe. It's more than some Europeans can bear. No wonder so many politicians are feigning anger at the bad, bad oil companies, who are back at their old price-gouging shenanigans. It may be an hackneyed skit, but voters still can't seem to get enough of it. After all, do any junkies love their dealer?

A few isolated Americans are, admittedly, calling for sustained high gas prices so that the country can finally kick its oil habit, but it's the same people who were doing it before Katrina -- such as Robert Samuelson in Newsweek:

What this country needs is $4-a-gallon gasoline or, maybe, $5. We don't need it today, but we do need it over the next seven to 10 years via a steadily rising oil tax.

Basically, Samuelson wants to have Germany's eco-tax, which increased the price of a liter of gas by a few cents every year for five years. As a result, sales of cars with high gas mileage increased, as did the number of people using public transportation. But Samuelson was already calling for higher gas prices last year; Katrina and Rita have not changed his mind. Will his readers change theirs? Or will he continued to be ignored as a guy who thinks outside the box, but whose ideas are unrealistic?

Oil companies are not only bad guys; they have also been hit by the storms. Oil production in the Gulf, where the US gets around a quarter of its domestic supplies, is running far below capacity. The rigs in the Gulf are expensive offshore projects launched because the US burned all of its large oil fields on land long ago. High time to think about alternatives? You bet!

Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who heads the Senate Energy Committee, stated that "Hurricane Katrina exposed the harsh reality that we have been skating on thin ice when it comes to this country's energy concentrations on the Gulf Coast." The solution? According to Domenici, we need to start pumping oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In addition, Republicans want to reduce environmental restrictions to facilitate the construction of new refineries so the US can import and process more oil. In other words, Domenici is basically promoting the Energy Plan he got through Congress last summer. No new lessons drawn here.

Climate change - not!

Have Americans at least stopped arguing about the pros and cons of global warming after Katrina and Rita so they can get back to more important things like intelligent design? Nope - those who used to believe in climate change feel vindicated, and those who have seen through these eco-freaks all along still do. You can always find some scientist in the US who will doubt that we have more hurricanes than we used to, or that they have grown in strength. Take, for example, MSU climatologist Jeff Andresen, who stated just after Katrina:

It will be a long time before we see something of this magnitude again, and that is a good thing.

Got that, kids? Big storms are bad. Write that down because it might be on your next pop quiz. But forget about the first part of what he said, because he didn't mean it. At that time, he couldn't have seen Rita coming; it was only the flapping of a butterfly's wing on the western coast of Africa. What the climate expert was trying to say is that two category five hurricanes within four weeks is weirder than just one. And since the hurricane season will not be over until the beginning of November, three such monsters in one year would be downright noteworthy.

Are hurricanes not becoming more frequent? Or are they just getting stronger? Both really, but our esteemed, skeptical experts have a good explanation for that, too: a 60-year cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO. Granted, AMO was only really discovered in 2000, so not much research has been done, and AMO has not really been proven, and actually we're not really sure if we understand it, but if you need a topic for your dissertation or post-doc in climatology, AMO might be what you're looking for. If so, maybe you'll be able to help me find the peak between 1930-50 and the dip between 1960-90 in Figure 2 on this web site, because I just can't see them. The only really salient feature for me is that spike after 2000.

Probably nothing to be worried about. I'm sure it was just the recorder slipping, as it does cyclically every 2000 operating hours. After all, one thing's for sure, as the influential journalist and expert in things not related to climatology Charles Krauthammer put it succinctly when he refuted this global warming fiction in the Washington Post once and for all:

There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period.

You don't get more succinct than that. More accurate perhaps, but not more succinct. You see, it is not only not possible to prove a relationship between Katrina and global warming; it is also not possible to prove there is no such relationship. Period.

So, my fellow Americans, I present you with my attempt at Global Warming for Dummies:

  1. Remember back in second grade when our teacher told us that there were other planets and that Mars was a little bit like the Earth, but without all the air we have? Remember her saying that if the Earth did not have an atmosphere, it would be about 60° colder outside? Yea, that rings a bell! OK, that's the greenhouse effect. It exists.
  2. The greenhouse effect has to do with CO2. Since the dawn of industrialization, there has been more and more CO2 in the air. Maybe global warming somehow has to do with solar flares, or maybe people are just blowing a lot of CO2 into the air. Whatever the case, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has generally been far below 280 parts per million (ppm) in the past 440,000 years, and never far above 300 ppm. Right now, we are just above 380 ppm.
  3. Scientists hope that we can stop this development at around 550 ppm before 2100. But they are skeptical. By the way, 550 ppm is almost twice as much as 280 ppm.

You know what that means? Wrong, it does not mean that Katrina and Rita prove, once and for all, that climate change is caused by people burning fossil fuels. Back when Eastern Germany experienced a record floods in August of 2002, I wrote: "In 2100, even if temperatures have increased by a few degrees and catastrophe has obviously befallen us, we will still not be able to say with any certainty that things would have been different if we had not burned fossil fuels."

That's because you don't really prove things in science. You disprove. Your disproof may then be taken as the new theory (that's scientific for "explanation") until your theory is further developed or disproved altogether.

In addition, we can't prove much about climate change because we cannot conduct any experiments. If we had a second Planet Earth, we could see whether hurricanes would be just as bad without industrialization.

But what I don't get is why people who generally go around talking about faith so much are suddenly skeptical when it comes to climate change. Throughout history, people have beaten each other's heads in when they disagreed about the word of God. And yet, neither the word nor the existence of God has ever been proven. When it comes to religious beliefs, people bid farewell to skepticism. All that science asks of us is that we accept probabilities and theories. A theory is kind of like the best explanation we have.

Oh boy, if that wasn't a lot of brainy academic talk! Alright, my fellow Americans, let's talk more from the heart:

If I live another 45 years, I'll come back home and visit the Gulf Coast in 2050. And if we find ourselves all standing ankle-deep in water and having a bad hair day because we have no drinking water to bathe in or to give our children to drink, I'll be the last person to tell you I told you so. Instead, we'll go looking for a stone church that is still standing and sit down inside together - that is, if the tidal surge didn't wash away all of the pews. The Baptists can read from the Book of Revelations. The Catholics can sit down with me and say the rosary, just like my Creole grandma Antoinette Duplantis of New Orleans taught me to do when I was a little boy.

And the rest of the world? Al Naomi of the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans put it very well back in August of 2002:

We're not going to be the only ones in the boat. We're just in the boat first.

Craig Morris is the author of Energy Switch, a book about a sustainable energy supply for the near future and the EU's success with renewables, which will be published next summer by New Society Press. He can be reached at www.petiteplanete.org.

(Craig Morris)

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