Global Warming, Hurricanes, And the American Response

Talk delivered by Dick Russell at the 3rd International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, Monte Porzio Catone (Rome), October 15, 2005.

[Note: Since Ross Gelbspan was unable to attend the Forum, much of this talk is drawn from his articles appearing in the Boston Globe (August 30, 2005) and The American Prospect (October 2005), as well as a seminar given by Gelbspan at Harvard University on April 20, 2005.)]

The catastrophic hurricane that struck New Orleans, Louisiana, and the American Gulf Coast in August was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming.

Although Katrina began as a relatively small hurricane that glanced off South Florida, it was supercharged with extraordinary intensity by the comparatively blistering sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. The same would be true of hurricane Rita. Like Katrina, this storm started with wind speeds around 70 miles an hour. Like Katrina, it became a monster storm with wind speeds exceeding 160 miles an hour. The warmer waters provided fuel for these hurricanes.

Scientists have recently stated that, while there has been no rise in the number of hurricanes since 1970, there has been a “large increase…in the proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5.” In July, an MIT scientist reported tropical storms globally have become 50 percent more powerful since the 1970s.

Until now, very few people in America connected this with global warming – because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt that global warming is even occurring.

The reason is simple: To allow the climate to stabilize requires humanity to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent. That, of course, threatens the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in history.

Ten years ago, in 1995, it was revealed that the coal industry had paid more than $1 million to four scientists to put out false information about global warming. And ExxonMobil has spent more than $13 million since 1998 on an anti-global warming public relations and lobbying campaign.

But as the floodwaters receded, and the tragic reality of over 1,000 people killed and two million more homeless set in, Americans began – belatedly – making some terrible connections about the administration of George W. Bush, which has a contempt for public planning matched only by its habit of subordinating reality to public relations.

You all saw the terrible TV images of thousands of people – mostly black, mostly poor – trapped inside the Superdome and Convention Center of New Orleans without food and water for many days. This was bad enough. But you may not know that, with even a modest degree of planning, the impact of this hurricane could have been greatly minimized. For years the United States Army Corps of Engineers has warned that New Orleans could not withstand anything more than a relatively weak (category 3) hurricane. Money was supposed to have been authorized to shore up levees and pumping stations. Last year, the New Orleans newspaper reported that the Bush Administration was spending less than 20 percent of what was needed to complete fortification of the city’s levees.

While the massive destruction of Katrina left Americans in shock, it should have been no surprise to the federal government. In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cited a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the three likely U.S. disasters. Nevertheless, by 2004 the Bush administration had cut funding to the Army Corps’ New Orleans district by more than 80 percent. Earlier this year, the Louisiana congressional delegation got Congress to provide about $60 million for flood protection for the city. But the Bush administration reduced that figure to $10.4 million.

While the administration was cutting funding to strengthen protective dikes and levees, the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation was also working to secure money for the restoration of its coastal wetlands to buffer the impacts of storm surges. Louisiana officials estimated this effort could cost $14 billion, but the lawmakers managed to secure only a tiny fraction – $570 million over four years. The requested multiyear, $14 billion appropriation was all but erased from the administration’s energy bill. So in order to save in the short term for disaster prevention, the administration’s lack of planning has yielded what will likely top $100 billion in damages – and most of it uninsured.

Ominously, the most massive casualty of the Bush administration’s studied aversion to planning still lies in the future. New Orleans – like the Netherlands, south Florida, coastal Bangladesh, and other low-lying population centers around the world – is especially vulnerable to hurricanes, intense storms, and sea surges. In contrast to New Orleans, the Dutch have created an elaborate system of canals, dikes, seawalls, and pumps to protect the Netherlands from extreme flooding. To the Dutch – and to most of the rest of the world – the increasing likelihood of devastating natural events constitutes an irrefutable mandate for planning.

Sea levels have been rising twice as quickly over the last 10 years as they were during the previous century, according to recent measurements by NASA satellites. That rise is propelled more or less equally by a steady infusion of water from melting glaciers and icecaps and by the thermal expansion of the oceans themselves (as water heats, it expands).

All of this is attributable to the rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which catches heat traditionally radiated back into space. Those atmospheric carbon levels, which had stabilized at about 280 parts per million for 10,000 years, have risen, since the Industrial Revolution, to 380 parts per million – a level this planet has not experienced for at least 420,000 years – as our burning of coal and oil has accelerated.

As a result, the planet’s historical temperature equilibrium has been thrown out of balance, with the earth becoming a net importer of heat. There can no longer be genuine doubt that human-made gases are the dominant cause of global warming.

Regrettably, President Bush’s anti-planning propensity seems immune to the physical changes overtaking the planet. When the Environmental Protection Agency listed the potential impacts of climate change in the United States on its web site in a document known as The National Assessment on Climate Change, the White House ordered the EPA to remove or alter all references to the dangers of global warming. The president dismissed the meticulously researched document, which took four years to prepare and review, as a frivolous product of bureaucracy. In fact, it represents the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

The findings of that scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gave rise in 1997 to an international plan to help our climate stabilize. The plan, known as the Kyoto Protocol, was signed by then-President Bill Clinton but never ratified by the United States Senate. In its first iteration, the protocol called on the world’s industrial nations to curb carbon emissions by some 7 percent below 1990 levels – by 2012. One of Bush’s first acts as president was to withdraw America from the Kyoto Protocol.

In the last few years, it has become overwhelmingly apparent that climate change is accelerating faster than scientists had anticipated even a decade ago. As a result, the delegates to the Kyoto Protocol (which has now been ratified by more than 150 nations) are planning to speed up the timetable and ramp up the emissions-reduction goals dramatically – unless the Bush administration succeeds in scuttling the entire process.

In response to the scientific consensus finding that humanity needs to reduce its use of carbon fuels by 70 percent in a very short time, the Netherlands is already implementing a plan to curb emissions by 80 percent in 40 years. Tony Blair has committed Britain to carbon cuts of 60 percent in 50 years. Germany has vowed a 50 percent reduction in 50 years. Earlier this year, French President Jacques Chirac called on the entire industrial world to cut emissions by 75 percent by 2050.

By contrast, the response of the Bush administration has been to take dead aim at the United Nations as the world’s coordinating agency on climate change. Shortly after Paul Wolfowitz was installed as director of the World Bank, he declared that the institution would make climate change a priority, promising massive investments in new coal technology. (Coal, with the heaviest carbon concentration of all fuels, is the most potent contributor to global warming of all fossil fuels).

Following a year of secret negotiations, Bush then announced a pact with Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, and several other countries to develop “clean coal.” This purely voluntary agreement not only contradicts the binding goals of the Kyoto Protocol; it also ignores the fact that you cannot clean the carbon out of coal. No matter how much coal is cleaned, it will continue to fuel the warming of the planet.

Finally, the president appointed as his new ambassador to the United Nations one John Bolton, a diplomat who has been consistently antagonistic to much of the UN body’s work. Because a more aggressive UN-sponsored Kyoto Protocol does not fit the president’s preconceived agenda, his strategy boils down to sabotaging the authority of the United Nations in the area of climate change.

To the president, this sounds like a plan. To the rest of us, it seems a fast track to climate hell.

Let us consider, for a moment, what this hell is going to be like for the future of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, the home of Mardi Gras, one of the truly wonderful American cities.

It is unclear how long it will take for the environment to recover, if it ever does. The mayor has said New Orleans will “breathe again.” However, as a friend of mine who works for the EPA has said, “Yeah, they’ll breathe bacteria, viruses and volatizing toxic chemicals.” He says there has been no valid environmental assessment to determine the amount of hazardous material, bacteria and viruses that are in the air, in the muck, and in the dust that people will be exposed to when they go back. The contaminated sludge left behind by the flooding will become airborne when it dries out, leading to new air pollution problems. Mold is a spreading and serious problem in buildings and even in outdoor air. As one physician, Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has said, “This city is a time-bomb for future risks of asthma, respiratory disease, and even cancer from the pollution.”

After the Civil War in America, a series of epidemics in New Orleans – especially of yellow fever – killed tens of thousands of people. Only the arrival of a comprehensive public health infrastructure – good sewers, water supply and housing – made it possible to get rid of things like cholera, yellow fever, malaria and dengue fever. A professor of public health entomology (Phil Rossignol of Oregon State) has noted that “these diseases are still around, they are very deadly and very opportunistic. People should remember that as we work to rebuild this area.”

As well, the pumping of floodwaters from New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain will create “long-term, harmful implications for the lake ecosystem and future human use of the area,” warns Duke University environmental engineer Karl Linden. Eventually these toxics will end up in the Mississippi River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The shellfish industry, and the beaches that people have long enjoyed for swimming, may be yet another casualty.

Which brings us back to what is likely to trigger still more disasters on this scale, and that is global warming. There is no argument that the ten hottest years in our recorded weather history have occurred since 1990, and that our planet is heating at a rate faster than any time in the last 10,000 years. We must make, and fast, “very deep cuts” in our carbon based fuels if “humanity is to survive,” Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, has stated.

In America, a long drought in the west has surpassed that of the “Dust Bowl” and is now emerging as the most severe drought in this region in the last 500 years. You are no strangers to such phenomenon, of course. Last July in Europe, the worst drought on record triggered wildfires in Spain and Portugal and left water levels in France at their lowest level in 30 years. The Indian city of Bombay received 37 inches of rain in a single day, killing a thousand people and disrupting the lives of 20 million others, and the monsoons of summer 2004 displaced more than 30 million people in south Asia. Southern Australia underwent the second year of its worst drought in history, with water being rationed in Sydney. Last year, the U.N. projected that losses from climate impact will reach $150 billion a year within this decade.

Last year also, the Pentagon released a major planning scenario detailing mass migrations, wars and all kinds of political chaos that would result from a rapid climate change event. Climate change was reclassified from an environmental problem to a national security threat.

I will give a few of many examples of what is already occurring. The gradual but inexorable breakup of the Antarctic ice shelves and the collapse of the largest ice shelf in the Arctic. The oceans are becoming acidified from the fallout of our carbon emissions. Most of the earth’s glaciers are retreating at accelerating rates. The Alaskan tundra is now thawing and releasing C02 back into the atmosphere. Due to changes in the climate, the world has consumed more grain than it produced for four years in a row – for the first time in history.

And we have actually altered the timing of the seasons. Because of the buildup of atmospheric C02, spring now arrives almost 2 weeks earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago.

The central drama underlying all of this is the ability of our planet to sustain civilization versus the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in human history. The oil and coal industries together generate more than a trillion dollars a year in revenues. They support the economies of more than a dozen countries. Their resources are virtually without limit.

Recently at a conference of the American Society of Environmental Journalists, I was stunned to hear an executive from Exxon-Mobil talk almost casually about how greenhouse gas emissions are expected not to decrease, but to almost DOUBLE between now and 2030. If we allow this to happen, it will be too late. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years. If we could somehow magically stop all our coal and oil burning, we would still be subject to a long spell of costly and traumatic disruptive weather.

So what can we do? In America, this is more than frustrating given the Bush administration’s policy of denial and of outright lies in order to promote its agenda. They were warned about an al-Queda attack, but the president was on vacation. There were warnings about the levees breaking from Katrina, but the president was on vacation. And we all know the truth now that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But if the government of the world’s most powerful nation will not move, we have seen some voluntary progress at the corporate level. Ford has joined Daimler-Chrysler in a $1 billion venture to produce fuel-cell powered cars. British Petroleum is now one of the world’s biggest producers of solar systems. Shell has created a $1 billion core company in renewable technologies.

And I would like to outline here some interactive policy strategies which my friend, the author Ross Gelbspan, has written about in his new book Boiling Point – which I strongly urge all of you to read. These represent the general direction that a vibrant Kyoto Protocol MUST take – provided the United States allows it to survive.

They include:

  1. A change of energy subsidy policies in industrial countries – redirecting the $25 billion that the U.S. government spends – and the $200 billion that industrial nations overall spend – on subsidizing fossil fuels – and putting those subsidies behind renewable technologies.
  2. The creation of a large fund, of about $300 billion a year for several years – to jumpstart renewable energy infrastructures in developing countries; this could be funded by carbon taxes in the north, a tax on international airline travel or (our preferred mechanism) a tax on international currency transactions and administered within the framework of the Clean Development Mechanism; and
  3. The adoption within the Kyoto framework of a binding, progressively more stringent Fossil Fuel Efficiency Standard that rises by 5 percent per year.

Under this plan, every country would start at its current baseline to increase its Fossil Fuel energy efficiency by 5 percent every year until the global 70 percent reduction is attained. That means a country would produce the same amount of goods as the previous year with five percent less carbon fuel. Alternatively, it would produce five percent more goods with the same carbon fuel use as the previous year.

Since no economy can grow at five percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.

For the first few years of this progressive efficiency standard, most countries would meet their goals by implementing low-cost or even profitable efficiencies in their current energy systems. After a few years, as those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, countries would meet the 5 percent goal by drawing more and more energy from renewable sources – most of which are 100 percent efficient by a Fossil Fuel standard.

And that would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them competitive with coal and oil.

Many believe that a plan of this magnitude would have an enriching effect on the world’s developing economies. It would create millions of jobs. It would raise living standards abroad. It would allow developing countries to grow – without the budgetary burden of imported oil. And in a very short time, it would jump the renewable energy industry into a central, driving engine of growth of the global economy.

The U.S., of course, with five percent of the world’s population, generates one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the current Bush administration being little more than the East Coast branch office of Exxon-Mobil and Peabody Coal – and climate change being the pre-eminent case study of the contamination of America’s political system by money – there are some hopeful signs in my country. Even many political conservatives, such as Senator John McCain, are addressing this issue. Growing numbers of cities and states and universities are beginning to implement their own emissions-reduction programs. The religious community has become involved with the climate issue in a very big way.

Not long ago, Al Gore, the man George W. Bush defeated – or, many believe, stole the election from in 2000 – had this to say about the situation we are facing: “Our circumstances are not only new; they are completely different than they have ever been in all of human history….This is a moral moment. This is not ultimately about any scientific debate or political dialogue. Ultimately it is about who we are as human beings. It is about our capacity to transcend our own limitations. To rise to this new occasion. To see with our hearts, as well as our heads, the unprecedented response that is now called for…Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Thank you.