CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Will Isaac knock sense into America?

As America gears up for November's big poll, Hurricane Isaac is a keen reminder of the Katrina tragedy and why adaption to climate change, as opposed to prevention, will be a disaster.

Climate Spectator

Hurricane Isaac, which was downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit landfall yesterday, acts as a useful reminder of the incredible damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina and the potential consequences of a warming world.

The suburbs of New Orleans are flooding, and the storm has taken out power to 600,000 homes and businesses across Louisiana. At least two dozen people have been killed in Haiti, illustrating the incredible vulnerability of the least fortunate to climate change. In addition, it has also shut down 93 per cent of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico region, leading to the biggest one day jump in petrol prices in more than 18 months.

For anyone who believes that we should simply rely on adaption to cope with global warming rather than act to reduce its extent, I would strongly urge you read-up on the sorry history of efforts to protect New Orleans from flooding.

Today New Orleans is well protected by a vast network of levees, large concrete walls and huge water pumps all designed to keep water out, or get it out very quickly once it gets in. The bill for all this – $US14.5 billion.

But as we all know, it clearly wasn’t well protected nearly seven years to the day when Katrina shaved past New Orleans.

The days leading into this calamity are seared into my brain. Only a few months earlier I had read an ominous story in National Geographic. It described how New Orleans sat wedged several metres below sea level, between the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico swampland. It had been steadily subsiding over its history and its flood levees had been neglected. It was clearly ill-prepared for a future hurricane that would carry the double hit of a flooding river in conjunction with a major storm surge from the sea.

For New Orleans rising sea levels and warming waters (which provide the fuel for hurricanes) as a result of global warming were matters of incredibly high consequence. In many respects New Orleans was like the canary in the coal mine for the impacts of global warming.

So as soon as I heard the news reports about a hurricane building in the Gulf of Mexico my attention was captured. I watched the weather reports on Katrina’s development with morbid fascination as it was steadily upgraded from a category 3 to 4 and then to 5. And as it built in strength over a few days, sure enough its predicted path led smack-bang into New Orleans.

I knew before it hit that it had the potential to act like a wake-up call to a country that had re-elected a president with scant regard for science, particularly that surrounding human-induced climate change.

And on the day it hit, the United States changed. It acted like a mirror of truth to a country that had since September 11, 2001 been irrationally swept by fear of external threats while doing precious little to address genuine and pressing domestic problems. The problems flowing from Katrina became symbols of a wider malaise.

While the rich were able to escape the carnage, the poor were left in what quickly descended into a quagmire of anarchy and death. Relief and rescue efforts were wholly inadequate and reminiscent of a third world country, rather than the biggest economy in the world. The head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency turned out to be a crony buddy of George Bush with no qualifications for a job that you really don’t want to leave to an incompetent.

It also came to light that over 2001 to 2005, the Bush Administration had been fighting with Congress to let it cut a total of approximately 67 per cent from the budgetary requests from the Corps of Engineers for levee augmentation projects in the New Orleans area, and had ultimately settled with Congress on a 50 per cent cut.

New Orleans was really an entirely predictable disaster waiting to happen. Warning signs were everywhere. Yet nothing was done until a terrible crisis hit. And the price tag of doing something at $14.5 billion was enormous – just to protect a single city.

If we were cold, calculating machines we’d have abandoned New Orleans long ago. We certainly wouldn’t have returned to repopulate the place after it was flattened. Also, rather than waiting for a disaster to happen and then doing something about it, we’d act well in advance to protect ourselves.

Closer to home in Victoria, planning rules were put in place to prevent development in areas thought to be at risk from rising sea levels. But this led some people to complain whose land was now less valuable. So the Victorian planning minister decided to set these rules aside.

Humans seem innately programmed to downgrade threats that aren’t immediately apparent until it’s too late to adequately respond.

Take the US Republican Party that has been hunkered down as Hurricane Isaac swept close by their convention in Florida a few days ago. They’ve selected a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who knows that climate change is real and when governor of Massachusetts took it reasonably seriously. Now, in a desperate effort to obtain the presidential nomination votes from a party overtaken by a lunatic fringe, he denies there’s even a problem.

Relying primarily on adaptation as the response to global warming means consigning a huge number of people to inordinate suffering as we lurch from crisis to crisis before responding.

Can we learn from the lessons of Hurricane Katrina?