Gulf Recovery:

Writers for World Watch say clean energy important to minimizing hurricanes

One year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina have policymakers focused enough time and money on preventing future catastrophes? In this month's edition of the Worldwatch Institute's World Watch, contributors John Young and Mike Tidwell discuss the growing global threat of stronger hurricanes. During today's OnPoint, Tidwell and Young talk about the lessons taught and lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. They also stress the importance of creating a national policy to cap carbon dioxide emissions and regulate the types of cars Americans drive.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today are John Young, former senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, and Mike Tidwell, author of the "Ravaging Tide; Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of the America's Coastal Cities." Mike and John have both contributed to the Worldwatch Institute's special report on Hurricane Katrina in this month's issue of World Watch. Mike, one year after Katrina, what's your assessment of how prepared we are for another major hurricane? Have we learned from Katrina?

Mike Tidwell: Well, I think that a year ago, and in the subsequent months since Katrina hit, a lot of lessons have been taught, but very, very few have been learned. In fact, I'm hard pressed to point to any single profound lesson that the country has learned as a result of Katrina. All the focus continues to be on levees and evacuation plans, which are merely symptoms of a larger problem, a larger disease. In South Louisiana that disease is catastrophic land loss brought on by the disappearance of the wetlands and barrier islands that used to protect the city from past hurricanes. And beyond that, we have the lesson that Katrina is just a curtain raiser for all our coastal cities, because if we get the three feet of sea level rise that even the Bush administration says is likely in coming decades from global warming, on top of more intense hurricanes from climate change that we're already seeing and have now been observed and measured in multiple scientific reports. If you combine those two, sea level rise and more intense hurricanes, Katrina is coming to all our coastal cities, and that lesson hasn't even begun to be learned.

Monica Trauzzi: So what should FEMA to be doing? What should FEMA feds be doing?

Mike Tidwell: Well, I mean we need to strengthen the levees in Louisiana, they are still insufficient, and it's a national shame and disgrace that New Orleans is still begging for levee improvement money. We need to improve the situation in terms of housing and jobs in South Louisiana. But if that's all we do, if all we do is improve the levees and make sure there's enough bottled water in front of the next hurricane, then New Orleans will be wiped out just from increased sea level rise and more intense hurricanes. So we have to address the levee the issue, address the humanitarian crisis, but we also have to switch to clean energy worldwide as soon as we can. So New Orleans needs a lot. It needs the levees. It needs the housing improvements, etc., but also needs the whole world to stop global warming.

Monica Trauzzi: John, talk more specifically about the factors that made and still make New Orleans very vulnerable to hurricanes.

John Young: Well, New Orleans is a uniquely vulnerable place. It's vulnerable because it's low lying, because it sits at the mouth of a very long river whose channel has been fundamentally altered by the addition of levees. It used to be that sediments would annually be deposited over the entire area of southern Louisiana and would replenish the land. Well, that land has been sinking ever since the levees were put up after the 1927 floods. In addition to that, we have new data that's come in, in the last couple of years from the federal government, from NOAA, showing that the entire southern Louisiana area is actually sinking. Deep bedrock is sinking in that area. So we have a really unfortunate combination of rapidly sinking land combined with global sea level rise, which makes the local sea level rise rate in southern Louisiana much more rapid than any other place on earth.

Monica Trauzzi: The Army Corps of Engineers has not started some of the rebuilding projects yet, despite a gross amount of federal funding. In the World Watch piece that you wrote you say, I quote, "Ignoring the question of whether it is even possible to protect southern Louisiana from the sea in the long run, it is clear that New Orleans will remain highly vulnerable to large hurricanes unless huge investments are made in carefully designed and far more protective storm defenses." Are people ignoring the toughest question of all, which is whether we should even be rebuilding New Orleans or not?

John Young: I think we're ignoring the toughest question of all, which is whether our current national policy with regard to energy and with regard to the global climate makes any sense in a time when it's obvious that global warming is occurring, and occurring at a remarkably rapid rate. We have to accept that in accepting global warming, in letting it happen, we're making an explicit trade-off. We're giving up places like New Orleans. New Orleans is a national treasure. New Orleans is perhaps the most remarkable culture, local culture, in the United States of America. And we have to accept that we're giving that up. We're giving up those communities and we're giving up the music and the architecture and all the things that make that city beautiful, in order to keep driving our cars at the pace we're driving them, in order to have sprawl development, in order to do all of the things that come with the unlimited use of energy.

Monica Trauzzi: So should we rebuild New Orleans, because if another storm comes through it could be devastated once again?

John Young: I think we should try to rebuild New Orleans, but I think we shouldn't rebuild New Orleans unless at the same time we make a serious attempt to completely turn around our national energy policy and to cooperate internationally with other countries in efforts to address global warming. Because if we don't we will lose New Orleans the matter how much we spend.

Mike Tidwell: And not only are we trading off New Orleans, Miami is barely three feet above sea level now. If we get three or more feet of sea level rise Miami will look just like New Orleans. It will be below sea level and a third of all hurricanes that strike the United States strike Florida. So you have a city below sea level getting hammered by hurricanes year after year that are becoming more intense. Lower Manhattan is right at sea level, parts of Washington, DC. We're trading off all these coastal areas. Why not - if ten years from now every car in America was a hybrid, like the one in my driveway right now, we would cut our gasoline use in half. We would reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent, just by switching, on a large scale, to hybrid engines. Wind power, solar power, these are all within our grasp. So we either go that direction, which also enhances our national security, reduces acid rain, etc., etc. We can go that direction and have our coastal cities or we can keep doing what we're doing and give all these treasures up.

Monica Trauzzi: But is that the solution? If we all drive hybrids and we switch to renewables are we no longer going to face the risk of these large storms?

Mike Tidwell: Well, there's some momentum built into the warming, no doubt. Carbon dioxide tends to stay in the atmosphere for about a hundred years before it dissipates, so there's more warming in the bank. We've bank maybe one to three degrees of warming already. So we have to brace for impacts. We have to brace for some sea level rise. We have to brace for the fact that the ferocity of hurricanes may stay with us, but in order to avoid the worst impacts, you know, the category fives every season perhaps, and three to twenty feet of sea level rise if the Greenland ice sheet disappears, we've got to get off of fossil fuels. So we are in a world of global warming. That's our reality. We need to create an energy policy that provides us a soft landing into a world that's less warm that it would be otherwise.

Monica Trauzzi: John, a lot of attention is being paid to the climate/hurricane debate. Where do you think the science stands on the debate?

John Young: At this point, it seems pretty clear that the frequency of large hurricanes has gone up quite substantially in the last few decades, close to doubling in the last 30 years. It is also clear that the Atlantic basin is experiencing an extreme maximum. We've never seen anything quite like what happened last year in the Atlantic basin. The figures I referred to before are for hurricanes worldwide. We actually are seeing strengthening of hurricanes worldwide. We don't have extraordinarily long-term records, but it squares with everything predicted in the climate models. And that, I think, is the most important thing to understand, is that none of this is a surprise if you were following the science. The issue here is that the oceans are warming, and increased sea surface temperatures lead to bigger hurricanes. This was predicted by a very large study that used every single different climate model. And it was predicted by several of the most important scientists studying hurricanes.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk a little bit about the political climate behind global warming. Are we seeing a change in the political landscape at all? Have we seen a change?

Mike Tidwell: Well, on the national level, no, nothing's changed. Exxon Mobil still has a ferocious headlock on Congress. Peabody Coal has a headlock on the White House, you know. The joke is the fossil fuel industry doesn't have to lobby Washington. The fossil fuel industry is Washington. But if you look beyond Washington and beyond the narrow special interests that have a lock on the Republican Party, and you turn to, for example California, where the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has committed that state to an eighty percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and aggressive near-term targets before that. You look at the New England states, actually, a combination of New England and mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Maryland, are working to cap carbon dioxide emissions from electricity power plants. So there are bright spots on the state and regional level, but unfortunately this patchwork quilt of efforts will only take us so far. What we need is a national policy that governs the kind of cars that Detroit builds. That allows us, as a nation, with one voice, to join the rest of the world, join reality, and join the process of capping CO2 worldwide within the Kyoto process, or something that comes after it. That's what's lacking and that's with hindering our efforts. And that's what's generating this enormous crisis. We're running out of time to deal with this issue. If we wait much longer our efforts to address the issue are going to bring more trauma to our economy and be more painful. If we start now, again, we can create a soft landing into a warmer world.

Monica Trauzzi: Has there been Katrina fatigue and do you think that that, in a way, sets the pace for how our legislators decide on what to do? You know, if people are trying to forget about the devastation, maybe there's not as much of a push to change things.

Mike Tidwell: I don't think that the American public has forgotten about the devastation. I think the American public is still very much focused on the human suffering that endures there. There's still so many faith groups, there's so many individuals that continue to give, and efforts are being made to rebuild New Orleans apart from the government effort. I think the government effort, especially on the national level, has been appallingly insufficient. I think it has been callous. I think it's been rhetoric and not substance. I think it's appalling that we're still begging for a few billion dollars to upgrade the levees in New Orleans when we're spending that much money every week in Iraq. It's a disgrace. So I think the American public is still focused and still sympathetic. The media are fickle, but they're always fickle. And the federal government has been as callous in its response 12 months later as it was in the days afterwards. So there's a lot to be done and I think that we will rebuild New Orleans, but, again, if all we do is build the levees and have the bottled water ready for the next hurricane and don't switch to clean energy, then New Orleans will become uninhabitable, period.

Monica Trauzzi: John, in the magazine you describe a double whammy of sorts, not only is global warming melting ice caps and altering the makeup of land masses, but our hurricanes and storms are also becoming stronger as time goes on and the water temperatures get higher. So you're saying that there's going to be this doubly devastating effect. Is this alarmism though? Are people going to start freaking out as a result?

John Young: No, I don't think its alarmism. I think that there are a couple of scientific realities here. One is that in the last two years we've had a really astonishing combination of scientific evidence appear with regard to the melting at both poles. We had a study come out a couple of months ago which showed that there's been a half degree Celsius per decade winter warming over the whole of Antarctica over the last 30 years. No one has ever shown that before. It's a truly remarkable thing. It makes Antarctica the fastest warming place on the planet. We're going to see ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean by the end of this century if current trends continue. We've already lost fifteen to twenty percent of summer sea ice cover. The two biggest summer melts ever observed in Greenland were in 2005 and 2002. And we now have satellite-based measurement using different methods showing that Greenland is losing mass. We have both gravimetric studies and we have satellite based altimeter studies that are producing nearly exactly the same result showing that we're losing ice mass there. That means the water is going to rise. We don't know how quickly it's going to rise, but it's going to rise more quickly than it's been predicted to rise before. And on top of that, we have strong evidence that big hurricanes are increasing, have gone up significantly in the last 30 years. And what kills people most of the time with hurricanes is storm surges. Storm surges are the large rise in water that occurs when a hurricane comes ashore. And if you put a big storm surge, 15 to 20 feet, on top of an increased sea level, that's where you'll see tremendous disasters. There have been storm surges in Bangladesh, for example, that have killed half a million people.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, John. We're going to have to end it on that note, unfortunately. Mike and John, thanks for joining me. This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]