subject: Sucker's Bets for the New Century: The U.S. after Katrina
posted: Thu, 08 Sep 2005 12:35:54 +0100

[Hmm, good point. One just assumes one's datacentre in the Docklands
will not be flooded. But indeed it may be, particularly as the
Docklands are, by definition, low-lying. I wonder what the disaster-
recovery people at the big banks in Canary Wharf were doing this
week? A storm surge of 3-5m would be bad news for the Docklands,
although unlike New Orleans the water would presumably drain away -
no doubt taking half of E14 with it. - Stu]

Published on Wednesday, September 7, 2005 by
Sucker's Bets for the New Century: The U.S. after Katrina

by Bill McKibben

If the images of skyscrapers collapsed in heaps of ash were the end
of one story -- the U.S. safe on its isolated continent from the
turmoil of the world -- then the picture of the sodden Superdome with
its peeling roof marks the beginning of the next story, the one that
will dominate our politics in the coming decades of this century:
America befuddled about how to cope with a planet suddenly turned
unstable and unpredictable.

Over and over last week, people said that the scenes from the
convention center, the highway overpasses, and the other suddenly
infamous Crescent City venues didn't "look like America," that they
seemed instead to be straight from the Third World. That was almost
literally accurate, for poor, black New Orleans (whose life had never
previously been of any interest to the larger public) is not so
different from other poor and black parts of the world: its infant
mortality and life expectancy rates, its educational achievement
statistics mirroring scores of African and Latin American enclaves.

But it was accurate in another way, too, one full of portent for the
future. A decade ago, environmental researcher Norman Myers began
trying to add up the number of humans at risk of losing their homes
from global warming. He looked at all the obvious places -- coastal
China, India, Bangladesh, the tiny island states of the Pacific and
Indian oceans, the Nile delta, Mozambique, on and on -- and predicted
that by 2050 it was entirely possible that 150 million people could
be "environmental refugees," forced from their homes by rising
waters. That's more than the number of political refugees sent
scurrying by the bloody century we've just endured.

Try to imagine, that is, the chaos that attends busing 15,000 people
from one football stadium to another in the richest nation on Earth,
and then multiply it by four orders of magnitude and re-situate your
thoughts in the poorest nations on earth.

And then try to imagine doing it over and over again -- probably
without the buses.

Because so far, even as blogs and websites all over the Internet fill
with accusations about the scandalous lack of planning that led to
the collapse of the levees in New Orleans, almost no one is
addressing the much larger problems: the scandalous lack of planning
that has kept us from even beginning to address climate change, and
the sad fact that global warming means the future will be full of
just this kind of horror.

Consider the first problem for just a minute. No single hurricane is
"the result" of global warming. But a month before Katrina hit, MIT
hurricane specialist Kerry Emmanuel published a landmark paper in the
British science magazine Nature showing that tropical storms were now
lasting half again as long and spinning winds 50% more powerful than
just a few decades before. The only plausible cause: the ever-warmer
tropical seas on which these storms thrive. Katrina, a Category 1
storm when it crossed Florida, roared to full life in the abnormally
hot water of the Gulf of Mexico. It then punched its way into
Louisiana and Mississippi -- the latter a state now governed by Haley
Barbour, who in an earlier incarnation as a GOP power broker and
energy lobbyist helped persuade President Bush to renege on his
promise to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

So far the U.S. has done exactly nothing even to try to slow the
progress of climate change: We're emitting far more carbon than we
were in 1988, when scientists issued their first prescient global-
warming warnings. Even if, at that moment, we'd started doing all
that we could to overhaul our energy economy, we'd probably still be
stuck with the 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in global average
temperature that's already driving our current disruptions. Now
scientists predict that without truly dramatic change in the very
near future, we're likely to see the planet's mercury rise five
degrees before this century is out. That is, five times more than
we've seen so far.

Which leads us to the second problem: For the ten thousand years of
human civilization, we've relied on the planet's basic physical
stability. Sure, there have been hurricanes and droughts and
volcanoes and tsunamis, but averaged out across the Earth, it's been
a remarkably stable run. If your grandparents inhabited a particular
island, chances were that you could too. If you could grow corn in
your field, you could pretty much count on your grandkids being able
to do likewise. Those are now sucker's bets -- that's what those
predictions about environmental refugees really mean.

Here's another way of saying it: In the last century, we've seen
change in human societies speed up to an almost unimaginable level,
one that has stressed every part of our civilization. In this
century, we're going to see the natural world change at the same kind
of rate. That's what happens when you increase the amount of heat
trapped in the atmosphere. That extra energy expresses itself in
every way you can imagine: more wind, more evaporation, more rain,
more melt, more... more... more.

And there is no reason to think we can cope. Take New Orleans as an
example. It is currently pro forma for politicians to announce that
it will be rebuilt, and doubtless it will be. Once. But if hurricanes
like Katrina go from once-in-a-century storms to once-in-a-decade-or-
two storms, how many times are you going to rebuild it? Even in
America there's not that kind of money -- especially if you're also
having to cope with, say, the effects on agriculture of more frequent
and severe heat waves, and the effects on human health of the spread
of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria, and so on
ad infinitum. Not to mention the costs of converting our energy
system to something less suicidal than fossil fuel, a task that
becomes more expensive with every year that passes.

Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of
physics and chemistry do not apply to us. That delusion will now
start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the
start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and
secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn't look like the
America we've lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will
inhabit the rest of our lives.

Bill McKibben is the author of many books on the environment and
related topics. His first, The End of Nature, was also the first book
for a general audience on global warming. His most recent is
Wandering Home, A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape.

2005 Bill McKibben

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