Position:climate change caused Hurricane Katrina

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This is a Hurricane Katrina issue and a climate change issue. It is in issue/position/argument form. Please expand on this page, not the more general pages.

Pro and Con

The position:climate change caused Hurricane Katrina is popular among critics of the Bush Administration that have ignored climate change and denied it is human-caused, on alternate days, and who famously refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to help prevent it.

Some arguments for this position include:

  • Never before had a category 4 or 5 hurricane actually hit the US Gulf Coast, and this event was considered before 2000 to have only a 0.5% probability based on history according to the US Army Corps of Engineers
  • The actual severity of Hurricane Katrina was unprecedented and widespread, so much so that there was no scenario, even the Hurricane Pam exercise, that had anticipated it - the lack of emergency preparedness speaks to the surprise of it
  • The pattern of hurricanes has changed drastically in recent years, with many having struck Florida repeatedly, and great damage to some islands in the Caribbean
  • This pattern is also changing further north, such as in Nova Scotia where Hurricane Juan did unprecedented damage in 2002, quite late in traditional hurricane season

While arguments against include:

  • Gulf of Mexico waters were unusually warm, over 30 degrees Celsius at least, and the local Gulf effect is part of a normal Atlantic cycle, not global climate change. The South Shore of Nova Scotia, which Juan hit, is beside the Gulf Stream and is also affected by this same cycle despite being further north.
  • Several of the arguments for the climate change cause listed above are incorrect. Hurricane Camille in 1969 came ashore in nearly the same place as Hurricane Katrina, and was a stronger (but smaller) storm. From the wikipedia article on the subject: "Camille crossed the southeastern tip of Louisiana, and then hit near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on the night of August 17. Its Category 5 strength winds are only estimated, due to the lack of wind reports near the center, though the NASA site at Stennis Space Center near Picayune, Mississippi, recorded an estimated gust of 160 mph with a pressure of 950 mbar." Severity unprecedented? Tell that to the thousands killed in Galveston in 1900.

What is undisputed remains:

  • Whether caused by global climate change or not, the local climate had changed in recent years as part of a pattern that was known, and very widely anticipated

Pitfall

The American public is not well enough informed on what science actually is. Giving a facile, misleading, or actually incorrect pronouncement "in the name of science" does a disservice to the public because when what was proclaimed to be "the scientific answer" turns out to be false, it causes people to assume that the next "scientific fact" will not be any more reliable than the first.

To better educate the public we need to speak of science as gradually closing in on truth by eliminating hypotheses that do not pan out. To get them to think in productive ways about Katrina, we need to educate them to see things in wider perspective and as phenomena that take form under various canopies. Global warming is a phenomenon that is subject to increasingly accurate measurement, and improvements in technology tend more and more to support that the planet is, by geological standards, warming very rapidly. Global warming may have a different impact on the frequency and intensity of various kinds of storms. The exact nature of these changes is less fully researched, and the picture of how hurricanes and other tropical storms will be affected is still patchy.

To educate the public regarding public policy decisions and the impact of politics on the lives of individuals, we need to emphasize that the major factors that made Katrina the disaster it turned out to be were public policy issues: (1) Ignoring the impact of environmental degradation such as the loss of the natural moderation provided by vegetation growing in vast shallow areas adjacent to the ocean, (2) Ignoring the design and maintenance to safe standards of dikes and levees, (3) Ignoring the need to prepare for evacuation of large populations of people who do not have their own automobiles or other means of flight, and the need to prepare for speedy supply of water, food, and other emergency supplies.

The lesson of Katrina that applies to public policy about global warming, regardless of whether climate change was a causal factor in the number and intensity of hurricanes that year, is that systems redundancy and ample safety factors are our best pro-active responses to a wide variety of disasters, fire, flood, earthquake, or even a nuclear strike. Saying, "Surely we will be able to do something when the time comes," is not an adequate policy.

See also

Science

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