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Environment Headlines - 13 September, 2005

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Prescott links global warming to Katrina

Juliette Jowit and Ned Temko, The Observer
John Prescott sparked controversy yesterday by linking America's refusal to tackle climate change to the devastation of the New Orleans hurricane.

The Deputy Prime Minister caused potential embarrassment for Britain by drawing a parallel between the US city destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and island states that scientists believe are under threat of being swamped.

In a speech in Berlin, he also criticised the US for failing to sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which is aimed at slowing global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
(11 September 2005)


The Storm Next Time

Nicholas Kristof, NY Times
If the White House wants to move the debate about Hurricane Katrina beyond what it calls the "blame game" for bodies decomposing in the streets of New Orleans, then here's a constructive step that President Bush could take to protect people in the future: Tackle global warming.

True, we don't know whether Katrina was linked to global warming. But there are indications that global warming will produce more Category 5 hurricanes. Now that we've all seen what a Katrina can do - and Katrina was only Category 4 when it hit Louisiana - it would be crazy for President Bush to continue to refuse to develop a national policy on greenhouse gases.

"The available scientific evidence indicates that it is likely that global warming will make - and possibly already is making - those hurricanes that form more destructive than they otherwise would have been," declares an analysis by five climate scientists at www.realclimate.org.
(11 September 2005)
Suggested by at Geoff Dabelko at Gristmill. He comments that Kristof "provides extensive links at the bottom of the piece, something more pontificators should do."


Can't blame global warming, at least not this time

Chip Giller and David Roberts, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
It was slightly ghoulish how quickly some environmentalists reacted to Hurricane Katrina with fulminations about global warming, like an old phonograph with only one record, cranking out the same song no matter the occasion.

Ross Gelbspan, in a widely circulated Op-Ed piece for The Boston Globe, said flatly that global warming was "the cause," "the explanation" and "the culprit" for various severe weather events of the past year, including Katrina. Robert Kennedy Jr. even linked the hurricane to President Bush's failure to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and his disdain for the Kyoto Protocol, saying, "We are all learning what it's like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence."

These statements are, to put it charitably, misleading. Let's be clear about two things:

The assertion that climate change "caused" Katrina, or even that Katrina was made worse by global warming, is simply not supported by the currently available scientific evidence.

No conceivable Bush (or Clinton, or G.H.W. Bush ) administration energy strategy aimed at slowing or reversing global warming -- least of all ratifying the Kyoto treaty -- would have protected lives or averted property destruction on the Gulf Coast. Think of smart energy policies as you might of tobacco taxes: good idea, but they probably wouldn't have saved your Uncle Ned from lung cancer.

...While scientists can't connect global warming to Katrina, or any individual weather-related disaster, they say the larger trend is crystal clear: We are entering an age of climate instability. In coming years, we can expect rising sea levels, more-intense hurricanes and monsoons and longer, drier droughts. Katrina is expected to drain the federal government of more than $150 billion.

How many more $150 billion hits can we take? How many climate evacuees can we house in sports stadiums? How much grief can we bear?

We urgently need to prepare on the ground for weather-driven upheaval, to restore our natural coastal buffer zones, push development inland and revitalize the agencies tasked with emergency response.

But along with that preparation -- no, as part of that preparation -- we need to get serious about doing what we can to stabilize the climate.

We must overhaul our power production systems, build smarter cities, drive less, conserve energy and re-engage international efforts to reduce emissions.

We need a second industrial revolution, built on clean energy and ecosystem sensitivity.

Chip Giller is the founder and editor of Grist.org, a Seattle-based online environmental magazine. David Roberts is Grist.org's assistant editor.
(11 September 2005)
Giller and Roberts are right to warn us not to get caught up on the connection between hurricanes and global warming.

However, it seems as if some scientists doe see a connection. See for example:
Stronger Hurricanes? Researchers Debate Whether Global Warming Will Make
Storms More Destructive
.
-BA


On Katrina, Global Warming

Al Gore, Common Dreams
The following is a transcript of a speech given by former Vice President Al Gore at the National Sierra Club Convention in San Francisco on September 9, 2005 addressing the challenges and moral imperatives posed by Hurricane Katrina and global warming.

...The scientists are telling us that what the science tells them is that this - unless we act quickly and dramatically - that Tucson tied its all-time record for consecutive days above 100 degrees. this, in Churchill's phrase, is only the first sip of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year until there is a supreme recover of moral health. We have to rise with this occasion. We have to connect the dots. When the Superfund sites aren't cleaned up, we get a toxic gumbo in a flood. When there is not adequate public transportation for the poor, it is difficult to evacuate a city. When there is no ability to give medical care to poor people, its difficult to get hospital to take refugees in the middle of a crisis. When the wetlands are turned over to the developers then the storm surges from the ocean threaten the coastal cities more. When there is no effort to restrain the global warming pollution gasses then global warming gets worse, with all of the consequences that the scientific community has warned us about.

My friends, the truth is that our circumstances are not only new; they are completely different than they have ever been in all of human history. The relationship between humankind and the earth had been utterly transformed in the last hundred years. We have quadrupled the population of our planet. The population in many ways is a success story. The demographic transition has been occurring more quickly than was hoped for, but the reality of our new relationship with the planet brings with it a moral responsibility to accept our new circumstances and to deal with the consequences of the relationship we have with this planet. And it's not just population. By any means, the power of the technologies now at our disposal vastly magnifies the average impact that individuals can have on the natural world. Multiply that by six and a half billion people, and then stir into that toxic mixture a mindset and an attitude that says its okay to ignore scientific evidence - that we don't have to take responsibility for the future consequences of present actions - and you get a collision between our civilization and the earth. The refugees that we have seen - I don't like that word when applied to American citizens in our own country, but the refugees that we have seen could well be the first sip of that bitter cup because sea-level rise in countries around the world will mobilize millions of environmental refugees. The other problems are known to you, but here is what I want to close with:
(9 September 2005)


Burning Atlanta

David Whitman, Washington Monthly
All the old regulatory weapons couldn't reform the Georgia power plant that is America's single biggest polluter. But a new law is working.
-------------
...For old-line environmentalists, the success of the cap-and-trade system should actually come as monumentally good news. The particular elements that made the traditional green paradigm inoperable at Cartersville—the lack of identifiable “corpses” tied to “perps,” the dispersal of health effects over a huge geographic area, the difficulty of enforcing command-and-control-type regulations—are not aberrations in the eco-wars. More and more, they look like the future of environmental policy. Like fine particle pollution, the damage wrought by global warming, suburban sprawl, and agricultural runoff is cumulative, the effect of hundreds of thousands of discreet decisions by individual operators, spread over broad swaths of the population over many years, with no direct way to tie individual perpetrators to individual victims.

Faced with these new realities, the cap-and-trade model that belatedly compelled changes at Bowen seems to hold considerable promise. Its first great virtue is that, rather than rely on regulatory targeting of particular villains, it places the burden on industry to figure out how to limit pollution as a whole. Its second great virtue is that industry, so far at least, seems mostly willing to play along in most cases.

So, the ultimate lesson of the Cartersville case is likely this: Erin Brockovich simply can't hack it anymore. The new generation of environmental challenges will have to be taken up by the government, with better cooperation from environmentally-enlightened companies. Fortunately, the tale of Bowen also shows a method, relying on the market, through which the federal government might do its job of confronting elusive environmental threats surprisingly well.

David Whitman is an Alicia Patterson fellow and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.
(September 2005 issue)
Dave Roberts at Gristmill really likes this article.


Time to head for the hills?

Edie Lau, Sacramento Bee
From starfish on the Pacific Coast to a large moth dubbed the "black witch," creatures across North America and beyond are moving, in apparent reaction to a shifting climate and environment.

Some biologists who study those changes say people would be wise to take a cue from wildlife and get out of harm's way.

"We need to start planning for more extreme events," said Terry Root, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Center for Environmental Science and Policy. "When things are changing as rapidly as the climate is changing right now, a lot more extreme events occur, both cold and warm. We need to be prepared for them, and we're not. We're not at all."

New Orleans stands as a poignant example of the consequences of being unprepared. Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina led to levee breaches that buried much of the city in water, it's an open question how long the rebuilding will take and whether - for at least part of the city - resettling elsewhere might not be a better option.

"Do we really want to rebuild in the places that are 5 to 7 feet below sea level?" asked Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas, Austin.
(12 September 2005)


Storm Warnings

Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, founded in 1871 and headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, bills itself as the “oldest association of state officials” in the country. Every three months, its members, who include the chief insurance regulators of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia, hold a four-day meeting to discuss issues of common concern. The association’s fall, 2005, meeting was scheduled for this past weekend, and, in addition to seminars on such perennial favorites as “Property Casualty Reinsurance” and “Receivership and Insolvency,” the event’s planners had organized a session on a new topic: global warming. Given recent events in Louisiana and Mississippi, a session on weather-related disasters would surely have been well attended. Unfortunately for the association, the meeting was booked into the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans.

...Though hurricanes are, in their details, extremely complicated, basically they all draw their energy from the same source: the warm surface waters of the ocean. This is why they form only in the tropics, and during the season when sea surface temperatures are highest. It follows that if sea surface temperatures increase—as they have been doing—then the amount of energy available to hurricanes will grow. In general, climate scientists predict that climbing CO2 levels will lead to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes, though not in hurricane frequency. (This increase will be superimposed on any natural cycles of hurricane activity.) Meanwhile, as sea levels rise—water expands as it warms—storm surges, like the one that breached the levees in New Orleans, will inevitably become more dangerous.

...For obvious reasons, this larger pattern is also of deep interest to the insurance industry. In June, the Association of British Insurers issued a report forecasting that, owing to climate change, losses from hurricanes in the U.S., typhoons in Japan, and windstorms in Europe were likely to increase by more than sixty per cent in the coming decades.
(12 September 2005)


Many groups see lessons, opportunities to advance causes in hurricane's horrors

Alana Semuels, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The winds from Hurricane Katrina had barely died down when the opinions about what it all meant began sweeping through the Internet.

An environmentalist called Katrina a lesson for Americans to stop driving SUVs. A blogger cited Katrina as evidence for the need to end the welfare state because so many people chose to live in low-lying New Orleans and then did nothing but whine for help once they got hit. Some considered Katrina divine proof that Israel was wrong to pull out of Gaza. Still others saw in Katrina God's revenge on a morally bereft New Orleans.

It's not just individuals who are adopting Katrina as confirmation of their pre-existing ideas. So, too, are politicians and advocacy groups.

They range from Germany's environment minister, who thinks Katrina should help convince the United States to do more to combat global warming, which may have contributed to Katrina's power, to a Pennsylvania nonprofit organization that hopes the poverty showcased in the aftermath of Katrina will prompt Congress to provide more help to the poor.

Call it exploiting a tragedy or call it learning from one, the aim is to employ Katrina to advance a cause. Environmental groups were among the quickest to react.
(11 September 2005)

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