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Katrina's silver lining

In his new book Collapse, Jared Diamond argues that a society’s survival depends on its response to environmental challenges. New Orleans’ overnight devolution into a third-world ghetto in the wake of Hurricane Katrina represents a major environmental challenge within an even more severe environmental threat: global warming. As a Nature study revealed this summer, hurricanes and typhoons have become stronger and longer lasting in the past thirty years, correlating strongly with rising sea temperatures that spawn stronger storms.

The study is nothing new. For years scientists have warned that without major cutbacks of greenhouse gas emissions—on the order of 50 to 70 percent—the world can expect increasingly severe weather. It’s already too late to alter climate changes projected for the next century.

Amid the chaos, destruction and lost lives down South—none of which should be minimized or can be truly appreciated from afar—a silver lining exists. Global warming, which Tony Blair’s science advisor calls the greatest danger civilization has faced in 5,000 years, is so scary because it is so gradual. Think of humans in the old analogy as the frog thrown into the boiling pot of water. If you ratchet the heat up too quickly, the frog will hop out. But if you gradually raise the temperature, the frog takes the time to enjoy what he no doubt perceives as a luxurious hot spring and promptly boils to death.

Hurricane Katrina is our slap in the face—a reminder that the water is, indeed, getting uncomfortably hot. The economic consequences represent a case in point. Diamond notes that the Chinese economy is taxed every year in the tens of billions of dollars due to self-inflicted environmental destruction. The floods of 1996 and 1998, for example, which resulted from massive, long-term deforestation, cost the government more than $50 billion. Katrina’s wrath on New Orleans, which could have been mitigated had the surrounding wetlands not been bulldozed and filled in for casino development, will easily approach this figure. If the Bush administration is so concerned with maintaining Americans’ standard of living, it should reevaluate the economic costs of doing nothing to reduce our GHG emissions.

Shockingly, the administration has failed to admit that amid soaring gasoline prices in the wake of Katrina, it might have missed a critical opportunity in crafting the recently-passed energy bill. While showering producers of oil, natural gas, and coal with nearly $14 billion in tax breaks, absolutely nothing was done to improve fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles. Drilling in ANWR and the Rockies will do nothing to decrease our dependence on foreign oil as consumption continues to soar.

Pain at the pump, and thus, pain for the economy, won’t change unless we change our transportation habits. This means mandating both strict new fuel standards for SUVs, as California has done, and creating a long-overdue national transportation strategy to prevent future sprawl debacles like Atlanta. Had we not been so dependent on oil—domestic or foreign—when Katrina hit, the gasoline shortages much of the South currently face would not be so severe.

Duke’s involvement in a new Department of Energy study on the effects of global warming in the Southeast ironically correlates with this latest catastrophe. According to The Chronicle, Duke’s Center on Global Change will receive $10 million to study the effects of climate change on the atmosphere and local ecosystems. Unfortunately, this represents little more than foot-dragging on the part of the U.S. government. While Europe and China focus most of their money and energy in their universities on research to increase fuel efficiency standards, build greener buildings and develop new innovations on alternative energies, the U.S. is content to research the matter to death.

As a world-class producer of environmental stewards, Duke should push the DOE for grant programs that finance pilot projects for greener buildings, vehicles and energy conservation. While new research opportunities are always welcome, we cannot expect the DOE to seriously do anything with Duke’s conclusions. After all, we’re talking about a department that still questions whether climate change even exists.

Katrina was bad, but what it portends is worse. If the government’s response to the disaster is to merely salvage New Orleans, a critical lesson will have been lost. True leadership will not come simply from rebuilding homes in a virtual lake but from confronting the much more serious environmental challenge that speaks to the survival of our society as we know it.

Jared Fish is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday.


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