Global Denial

As floodwaters recede and bodies emerge, Americans are belatedly making some terrible connections about the Bush administration, which has a contempt for public planning matched only by its habit of subordinating reality to public relations. One aspect, of course, is Iraq. The other is the needless tragedy in New Orleans.

The Hurricane Katrina disaster is also a curtain-raiser for the largest-ever challenge to public planning: the consequences of global warming. If the present complacency continues, we will see more flooding, more breakdown of democratic civil order, more loss of human life and dignity, and more vivid divisions between rich and poor.

The parallel with Iraq is worth a moment's further reflection. In spring of 2002, in anticipation of the invasion of Iraq, the State Department consulted with about 200 leaders of Iraqi civil society -- lawyers, engineers, businesspeople, and others, all of whom detested Saddam Hussein. The group warned Thomas Warrick, then a State Department adviser, that absent a well-conceived and carefully executed post-invasion plan, chaos would ensue, nullifying any stability the Americans hoped to establish.

With Warrick's guidance, the group worked out strategies to facilitate the least disruptive transition possible. When the State Department presented the plan to the White House, it was informed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the president wanted no such plan. The Iraqis, according to the White House, would be so grateful to their liberators for the overthrow of the hated Hussein regime that they would establish their own democratic order and reconstruction program. Essentially, the State Department officials were told to take their plan and shove it.

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Our latest national tragedy has been widely predicted for decades. With even a modest degree of planning, its impacts could have been drastically minimized. For years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has warned that New Orleans could not withstand anything more than a relatively weak (Category 3) hurricane. Ten years ago, when an intense rainstorm killed six people in the city, the corps asked Congress to provide the $430 million it had authorized to shore up levees and pumping stations. Little of that money ever materialized.

Last year, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported that the Corps of Engineers had determined that the Bush administration was spending less than 20 percent of what was needed to complete the 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 most likely U.S. disasters. Nevertheless, by 2004 the Bush administration had cut funding to the corps' New Orleans district by more than 80 percent, as Sidney Blumenthal reported in a recent Salon article.

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, according to Newhouse News Service.

While the Bush 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, according to The Times-Picayune. 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.

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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 (ppm) for 10,000 years, have risen, since the Industrial Revolution, to 380 ppm -- 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. This energy imbalance is the ‘smoking gun' we have been looking for,” said NASA's James Hansen, one author of the “heat balance” study published this spring in the journal Science.

One consequence of the heating of the planet is that tropical storms have become 50-percent more intense over the past 30 years, according to Professor Kerry Emanuel of MIT. That increase is due to ocean warming and the resulting changes in wind patterns. While global warming doesn't increase the number of hurricanes, it makes them markedly stronger as ocean surface temperatures rise, because warming water provides the fuel for the storms.

When Katrina glanced off south Florida, it was a Category 1 storm, with wind speeds of about 70 miles per hour. But when it moved across the superheated Gulf of Mexico, with surface temperatures exceeding 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it swelled into a 170-mile-per-hour megastorm before making landfall east of New Orleans.

Regrettably, President Bush's anti-planning propensity seems immune to the physical changes overtaking the planet. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 U.S. 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.

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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 one 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, of course, the president appointed as our new ambassador to the United Nations one John Bolton, a diplomat who has been consistently antagonistic to much of the UN's 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.

Ross Gelbspan, a retired journalist, is author of The Heat Is On and Boiling Point, and creator of the Web site www.heatisonline.org.

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