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Katrina, global warming & peak oil

When Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, it led to more than 1,000 deaths and $200 billion in damages and set off the largest, most costly disaster-relief operation in American history

But was global warming to blame?

Scientists still don't agree, but there's plenty of evidence that global warming may have increased sea surface temperatures, which, in turn, would load the dice for bigger hurricanes.

Mike Tidwell thinks that this possibility should get more credit in Washington, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tended to point the finger at natural cycles and away from global warming. Whatever the scientific basis for NOAA's position, it has been politically convenient for the Bush administration, which has finally accepted that global warming exists and is caused by humans, but continues to resist serious action to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution, saying it would hurt the economy and cost 4 million jobs.

Recently, however, NOAA may have changed its tune. On Aug. 8, NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said that high sea surface temperature will be partly responsible if storms are bad this year, and that his agency wanted more research to see if there is a connection to global warming. Credit for NOAA's flip may be due partly to ongoing protests by Tidwell's group, the U.S. Climate Emergency Council.

Tidwell has good reason to question the Bush administration's judgment on hurricane matters.

Many people who lived in or visited New Orleans before Katrina observed how vulnerable the city was to a major hurricane. But in 2003, two years before Katrina, Tidwell published a book about it: Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. Yet, the federal government did little before Katrina to avert the disaster everyone agreed was coming, a move tantamount to a society committing suicide, according to Tidwell.

Tidwell remains a prophet crying in the wilderness. His call to restore Louisiana wetlands and reengineer the New Orleans levee system as part of a $14 billion plan has gone largely unheeded, with the federal government spending only a token amount to protect the city from future strong storms. Tidwell is sure that it won't be enough, and that New Orleans remains dangerously vulnerable to attack from the sea.

Levees for New York, Baltimore and Savannah

Cover page of the book Ravaging Tide Now, Tidwell is saying the same thing about the rest of America. His new book, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, came out last week, just in time for the anniversary of Katrina.

Katrina is perhaps the most written-about natural disaster since the sinking of Atlantis, and in the space of a year dozens of books have come out about it. Most have been either examples of the traditional disaster-thrill genre or else extended critiques of federal and state relief efforts from the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on down.

Tidwell's book is different because he draws deeper lessons from Louisiana for the rest of the nation and the world.

"The biggest lesson of all from Katrina is the one that nobody's talking about: It's coming, it's coming to all of us," Tidwell told me. "As I argue in the book, what really wiped out New Orleans was a combination of two things: three feet of relative sea-level rise over the last 100 years followed by a massive storm.

"Now (with global warming), we're looking at up to three feet of absolute sea-level rise worldwide, and hurricanes are becoming more intense, much stronger. Category four and five storms are becoming more frequent. Do all of us Americans want to become New Orleanians as well?"

Tidwell says that if the Greenland ice sheet collapses into the ocean, as scientists have warned should warming continue, the world could see 23 feet of sea-level rise. In that case, with many of our cities partially below sea-level as New Orleans is, "we'll all have to live behind levies, in New York City, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. Those same Katrina conditions are coming to all of us all along the East Coast."

"New York is extremely vulnerable to surge tides. Some of the highest surge-tide values in America are in the New York area. And they also have 14 waste-water treatment plants. You can't just pick them up and move those." Such plants could become a dangerous source of toxic pollution if hit by a big storm.

Conditions are particularly bad in Virginia and in Tidwell's native Maryland. Due to numerous tidal rivers and streams flowing into Chesapeake Bay, together the two states have more than 6,000 miles of shoreline - more than California. Along with Louisiana, these two states could be among "the basket-cases of global warming. We will pay the highest price."

After Katrina, evacuees from the Gulf Coast could find a safe haven in the rest of the U.S. Cities from Houston to New York welcomed displaced families. But if global warming were severe enough to raise sea levels only three feet - not to mention the 23 feet possible if Greenland's ice sheet collapsed - the rest of the nation would probably not be able to help the 90 million potential refugees of East Coast cities hit by catastrophic storms.

"In coming decades, as global warming batters our coastlines, the nation's interior will not magically carry on as a welcoming, unchanged land of milk and honey," Tidwell writes in The Ravaging Tide. "With a mid-level warming of four to five degrees in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) range, Kansas could become a scrub desert. What in the world will we eat if our national breadbasket is a scrub desert?"

Add in drought in the West as mountain snowpacks disappear and record deaths from heat waves in the Midwest with the potential spread of tropical diseases by new hordes of mosquitoes, there could be a more-or-less permanent nationwide state of weather emergency.

The human and financial cost would be staggering. After years of expense in building and maintaining New Orleans-style levees for a half-dozen East Coast cities, losses in storms comparable to the billions wiped out from Katrina, Rita and Wilma could send the economy into a depression bordering on financial collapse.

The bad news is that scientists say we only have 10 years to take serious action to slow down global warming before it will be too late to prevent such catastrophes as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

But the good news, according to optimists from Al Gore on down, is that we already have all the technology we need to cut our pollution from fossil fuels and save our climate - energy efficiency and clean energy.

Tidwell is an energy optimist and he thinks America can transition to clean energy if only we muster the political will. He adds that Virginia, which gets more than half of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive energy source, is particularly gifted for clean energy and efficiency. He says that wind turbines built on Appalachian ridgelines could provide up to 20 percent of the state's power.

If the problem is so bad, can the solution be so much fun?

Tidwell's vision of East Coast cities in a constant state of hurricane-siege, while the heartland dries up and blows away, is so scary that it's hard to accept. Yet it is so well supported by scientific research that it is hard to reject outright. With much justification, Tidwell presents global warming as a threat comparable to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II wrapped up together.

But in an attempt to be upbeat and encouraging about solutions, like many environmentalists who have promoted clean energy as a kind of cure-all for America's current ills, Tidwell's vision of what it's going to take to avoid this apocalypse fails to measure up to the massive scope of the threat that he so vividly portrays.

"If we commit, right away, with a wartime intensity equal to the challenge at hand," Tidwell writes in The Ravaging Tide, "we can cut our total greenhouse-gas emissions 50 percent or more in just 15 years or less while simultaneously improving our economy and way of life. If this sounds too good to be true, please keep reading."

Of course, if you do keep reading, you'll find an inspiring story about how Tidwell got into clean energy in his own life.

"Nobody can tell me that a switch to clean energy is impossible," Tidwell told me. "The reason they can't tell me that it's not possible is that I've done it myself. I just charged this cell phone with solar power. I heat my home with corn from Maryland. I drive a Prius. I save money. I've changed my behavior, I turn out lights, I don't waste electricity, and I get all my power from clean energy. It's totally affordable, and I still have a modern lifestyle."

Perhaps the most motivating part of Tidwell's book is the story of how he and a few neighbors in Takoma Park, Md., bought corn-burning stoves to heat their homes, formed a coop to buy corn from a local farmer and then arranged for the city to host a corn granary, donated by the stove manufacturer, to store the coop's fuel corn.

"Again, people need to understand that there is a solution, and that solution does not involve sacrifice and massive changes in their lives."

Tidwell's is a compelling example for each of us to embrace efficiency and green power. But since no energy-efficient man is an island, it's not the whole story.

Unless you live off the grid and make all your own food, clothing and other goods yourself from all-natural ingredients or recycled junk, you partake in the fossil-fuel use of the larger, globalized consumer society. Just take one example, the personal automobile that Americans love so much.

Let's assume you drive a hybrid, as Tidwell does. A Prius may get great mileage, but its manufacture, distribution, use and disposal all require the use of energy. Today, that energy comes mostly from fossil fuel.

A car is made largely from metal and plastic. Steel plants burn lots of coal. Plastic is made from petroleum. Auto-assembly plants use lots of coal-fired electricity. Cars are shipped from factories in Asia on huge container ships that burn diesel fuel and then delivered to the dealer's showroom on diesel-powered trucks.

Fossil-fuel use continues once you get the car. Whether you drive a Prius or a Hummer, you still have to drive it on public roads paved with asphalt (a petroleum product) by trucks running on diesel fuel. Traffic signals and street lights run on municipal power, usually from coal-fired plants. And when it's time to trade in the Prius for a plug-in hybrid or the next generation of green car, the cycle will start all over again.

Meantime, your old car will eventually wind up in the junkyard, where electric- or diesel-powered heavy equipment will crush it, and a coal-fired furnace will melt down the steel for reuse. The scrap metal might even get shipped back to Asia, using even more fuel.

All this is not to minimize the impact of driving a fuel-efficient car. It's just to show that driving Priuses won't get us off the fossil-fuel hook.

It's the same with screwing in compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying an Energy Star refrigerator or using biofuels such as ethanol. All of these solutions currently require fossil fuels at some stage of their existence, even if they help the end-user to save energy.

We should continue to do some of these things. But don't we need to do much, much more to cut our emissions by 70 percent, as scientists say is required to avoid dangerous climate heating?

Tidwell has made a chilling diagnosis of a society whose climate is gravely ill. But like many environmentalists, his prescription for recovery seems too gentle.

It's like giving an aspirin for brain cancer.

Peak oil versus clean energy

"We've created an unsustainable system," Richard Heinberg told me. "And I don't mean that it's not eco-groovy. I mean that if we keep going this way, we'll die."

Heinberg is a leading theorist on peak oil, the idea that world petroleum production will soon reach its historic high point. Afterwards, according to energy analysts, oil will begin to deplete - just as the growing economies of China and India cause demand to spike - and the price of oil, along with other energy sources, will begin an irreversible rise as its supply falls.

Some people think that if we run out of cheap oil, then we won't have to worry about global warming. What they forget is that America has 250 years worth of coal at current usage rates, and the industry is already working on profitable ways to liquefy coal to run cars, trucks and planes. Since coal is much more carbon-intensive than oil, if America switches from oil to coal, it could doom any efforts by the rest of the world to reduce global-warming pollution.

So whether to fight global warming or to deal with peak oil, we'll have to get off of fossil fuels. But peak-oil experts like Heinberg say that won't be so easy.

Cover of the book Powering Down In his 2004 book, Powerdown, Heinberg wrote that it would require fundamental changes in the world economy and in Americans' lifestyles. This would mean much more than just painlessly switching clean energy for dirty energy.

Today, Heinberg continues to doubt that renewable energy sources are beefy enough to feed the hunger of industrial civilization as we have come to know it.

"The people who talk about climate change in my experience tend not to have much understanding of energy issues," Heinberg told me. "You have to spend energy to get energy. Most of the alternatives we're talking about, like biofuels, offer a low net-energy impact. What's allowed us to build our enormous industrial infrastructure has been the enormous payback from fossil fuels. To say we can replace this with lower energy sources is unsupportable from a chemistry and physics point of view alone."

Environmentalists used to tell Americans that we should drive less or rethink our transportation system to use more transit and fewer private autos. But you don't hear talk of cutting back much anymore from green groups. Instead, it's about how clean energy can fight global warming and create new jobs, all while improving our consumer lifestyle.

And don't expect clean-energy advocates like the Apollo Alliance ("Three million new jobs. Freedom from foreign oil."), a much-touted coalition of environmentalists and labor unions, to talk about powering down any time soon.

"I think environmentalists got really timid because the free-market types were pounding on them," Heinberg says. "That's understandable, but it doesn't make the message any less true."

Tidwell says that U.S. drivers can keep all of their 220 million personal cars and light trucks and still get off of fossil fuels. This may be what most Americans want to hear, but Heinberg says that it's unrealistic.

Whether oil prices rise because of diminishing supplies or government restrictions on carbon-dioxide emissions, Heinberg sees a future of radically higher fuel prices with no practical substitute. In response, the number of cars on the road will shrink.

"When people can't afford to get around, can't afford to go shopping, they'll start doubling up. The cars will start getting older, and the big car companies will start going out of business, or the government will take them over. They'll become even more inefficient than they are now. The streets will come apart, because repairing them will become more expensive, and the states won't be able to find the money for repairs. The whole transport system will become more degraded, unless we proactively return to rail and light rail."

A thick steak or an arugula salad

Heinberg stresses that oil and other fossil fuels are unique in human history and that they are unlikely to be replaced at current levels of use by any amount of future clean energy.

"We have to be realistic when we talk about fossil fuels. Yes, on the one hand, they are the root of all evil - climate change, pollution and other problems. But on the other hand, we have to recognize that they have offered us enormous benefits. They are basically a free gift from nature, enormously concentrated fuels. We've never had anything like them before, and we'll never have anything like them again."

To his credit, unlike some global-warming activists, Tidwell rejects coal, even if it can be burned more cleanly. He's also against expanding nuclear power, though he does say that we should keep existing nuclear plants online.

Yet he's a big believer in another controversial energy source. In The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell writes that ethanol from corn "has a fuel value 26 percent higher than the energy required to make it," and that sugarcane ethanol, as used in Brazil, is even better. He predicts that more fuel-efficient cars of the future could run entirely on ethanol from waste biomass. "Our cars, trucks and vans would run, more or less, on the nation's lawn clippings."

But to put the real potential of biofuels in perspective of the oil they're supposed to replace, we need to compare net energy yields for each. For the moment, let's assume that ethanol really does yield 26 percent net energy. In isolation, that might sound pretty good. But it looks much less impressive when we consider that oil from Saudi Arabia can give a 1,000 or 2,000 percent yield of energy produced. Our industrial society has been built on such large-yield sources as oil.

You might say that, if fossil fuels are a big, thick steak, then renewables like ethanol are an arugula side salad with low-cal dressing. The salad is better for your health and lighter on the land, but it's not going to fill your belly.

Automakers have known how to run cars on ethanol since the days of Henry Ford. But there's a good reason why we've used gasoline - in an age of cheap oil, it gives a lot more bang for the buck. If gas from high-yield Saudi oil sells for $3 a gallon, might low-yield ethanol be expected to sell for many times more once millions of drivers rely on it as the only way to fill up their tanks?

While biofuels may help farmers run their own tractors in the future, critics such as David Pimentel of Cornell University say that the promise of ethanol to run America's cars on a large scale is mostly hype.

Together with Tad Patzek of UC-Berkeley, Pimentel published a study in July 2005 finding that ethanol from corn actually yielded 29 percent less energy than it took to produce. Ethanol made from switch grass or wood were even worse, according to the study. Pimentel, a professor of agriculture and ecology, has also pointed out that growing crops for biofuels can also take farmland out of production for food, which could stoke rising food prices in the future. Given all of ethanol's problems, Pimentel wonders if current U.S. subsidies may be little more than corporate pork for Bush campaign donors like agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Other clean energy ideas, like wind and solar power, are practical today, if on a very limited scale. Yet even these genuinely green sources still depend on a global manufacturing and distribution network run on fossil fuels. It still takes coal-fired steel to build wind turbines and solar panels. Then it takes oil to ship finished units to the warehouse, retailer and final customer.

Could all this be accomplished in the future using no fossil fuels and without emitting any carbon dioxide? Maybe, but it's taken our economy three centuries to build up an industrial system based on coal and oil. It would be a tall order to change it out in 10 years.

I asked Richard Heinberg if he thinks we can stage such an energy revolution with no sacrifice, as many clean-energy advocates promise.

"It would be nice if that were true," says Heinberg. "The fact is that renewable energy sources like solar, wind and biomass currently give us only a negligible portion of our commercial energy for transportation and electricity. To increase that substantially will require not only enormous investment on the order of trillions of dollars, but also decades of work."

While focusing on the threat of peak oil, Heinberg agrees with Tidwell that our society is in danger from global warming. He says that to deal with both threats, we'll need the White House and Congress to take real action.

"Either we've got to power down, or we'll face some level of collapse. That could look like the Depression, or it could be worse. If we do it proactively and cooperatively, it will be an enormous challenge. The trick is that's going to require political leadership and courage at the top."

But Heinberg doesn't think that kicking fossil fuels, whether because of depletion or to fight global warming, will be all gain and no pain.

"It'll require a willingness to tell people things they don't want to hear," he says.

What kinds of things? Well, just the sort of big changes in society that environmentalists used to advocate before they started telling us that clean energy would let us have our cake and eat it, too.

"We'd have to change our agriculture system, take subsidies away from business and start subsidizing small-scale organic agriculture. We'd have to deliberately start scaling down the trucking industry and rebuilding our railroads. There are segments of society that will have to tighten the belt, suck it up and find different jobs, basically. If government helps with the transition, we'll be better off. Those people will lose their jobs anyway, but if there's an orderly transition, we can take away some of the pain."

Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.

Editorial Notes: Originally published in the August Free Press. Re-published by permission of the author. -BA

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