[xmca] The New Yorker on Katrina and global warming

From: David Preiss (davidpreiss@puc.cl)
Date: Mon Sep 12 2005 - 07:46:32 PDT

by Elizabeth Kolbert
Issue of 2005-09-19
Posted 2005-09-12

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, founded in 1871 and
headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, bills itself as the “oldest
association of state officials” in the country. Every three months, its
members, who include the chief insurance regulators of all fifty states plus
the District of Columbia, hold a four-day meeting to discuss issues of
common concern. The association’s fall, 2005, meeting was scheduled for this
past weekend, and, in addition to seminars on such perennial favorites as
“Property Casualty Reinsurance” and “Receivership and Insolvency,” the
event’s planners had organized a session on a new topic: global warming.
Given recent events in Louisiana and Mississippi, a session on
weather-related disasters would surely have been well attended.
Unfortunately for the association, the meeting was booked into the Sheraton
in downtown New Orleans.

Katrina was so destructive—whole towns and cities devastated, and their
traditions swept away—that anyone who would presume to comment on it has a
heavy burden. A disaster of this magnitude seems to demand not dispassionate
analysis but simple human empathy. To use it as an occasion to point out the
folly of U.S. energy policy, as, for example, the German environmental
minister, Jürgen Trittin, did, is to invite the charge of insensitivity, or
even worse. “The American president shuts his eyes to the economic and human
damage that the failure to protect the climate inflicts on his country and
the world economy through natural catastrophes like Katrina,” Trittin wrote
in the Frankfurter Rundschau. An editor for the London Times online accused
Trittin of “intellectual looting,” while the Web version of Der Spiegel
announced “another low point for transatlantic relations—and set off by a
German minister. How pathetic.” But, callous as it may seem to say so,
America’s consumption of fossil fuels and catastrophes like Katrina are
indeed connected.

Though hurricanes are, in their details, extremely complicated, basically
they all draw their energy from the same source: the warm surface waters of
the ocean. This is why they form only in the tropics, and during the season
when sea surface temperatures are highest. It follows that if sea surface
temperatures increase—as they have been doing—then the amount of energy
available to hurricanes will grow. In general, climate scientists predict
that climbing CO2 levels will lead to an increase in the intensity of
hurricanes, though not in hurricane frequency. (This increase will be
superimposed on any natural cycles of hurricane activity.) Meanwhile, as sea
levels rise—water expands as it warms—storm surges, like the one that
breached the levees in New Orleans, will inevitably become more dangerous.
In a paper published in Nature just a few weeks before Katrina struck, a
researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that
wind-speed measurements made by planes flying through tropical storms showed
that the “potential destructiveness” of such storms had “increased markedly”
since the nineteen-seventies, right in line with rising sea surface

The fact that climbing CO2 levels are expected to produce more storms like
Katrina doesn’t mean that Katrina itself was caused by global warming. No
single storm, no matter how extreme, can be accounted for in this way;
weather events are a function both of factors that can be identified, like
the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth and the greenhouse-gas
concentrations in the atmosphere, and of factors that are stochastic, or
purely random. In response to the many confused claims that were being made
about the hurricane, a group of prominent climatologists posted an essay on
the Web site RealClimate that asked, “Could New Orleans be the first major
U.S. city ravaged by human-caused climate change?” The correct answer, they
pointed out, is that this is the wrong question. The science of global
warming has nothing to say about any particular hurricane (or drought or
heat wave or flood), only about the larger statistical pattern.

For obvious reasons, this larger pattern is also of deep interest to the
insurance industry. In June, the Association of British Insurers issued a
report forecasting that, owing to climate change, losses from hurricanes in
the U.S., typhoons in Japan, and windstorms in Europe were likely to
increase by more than sixty per cent in the coming decades. (The report
calculated that insured losses from extreme storms—those expected to occur
only once every hundred to two hundred and fifty years—could rise to as much
as a hundred and fifty billion dollars.) The figures did not take into
account the expected increase in the number and wealth of people living in
storm-prone areas; correcting for such increases, the losses are likely to
be several hundred per cent higher. A report issued last week, which was
supposed to have been presented at the National Association of Insurance
Commissioners’ meeting in New Orleans, noted that, even before Katrina,
catastrophic weather-related losses in the U.S. had been rising
“significantly faster than premiums, population, or economic growth.”

Since President Bush announced that the country was withdrawing from the
Kyoto Protocol, in March, 2001, the Administration has offered a variety of
excuses for why the U.S., which produces nearly a quarter of the world’s
greenhouse-gas emissions, can’t be expected to cut back. On the one hand,
Administration officials have insisted that the science of global warming is
inconclusive; on the other, they’ve cited this same science to argue that
the steps demanded by Kyoto are not rigorously enough thought out. As the
rest of the world has adopted Kyoto—earlier this year, the treaty became
binding on the hundred and forty nations that had ratified it—these
arguments have become increasingly indefensible, and the President has
fallen back on what one suspects was his real objection all along: complying
with the agreement would be expensive. “The Kyoto treaty didn’t suit our
needs,” Bush blurted out during a British-television interview a couple of
months ago. As Katrina indicates, this argument, too, is empty. It’s not
acting to curb greenhouse-gas emissions that’s likely to prove too costly;
it’s doing nothing.

David Preiss


Profesor Auxiliar / Assistant Professor

Pontificia Universidad Católica de <http://www.puc.cl/> Chile

Escuela de Psicología

Av. Vicuña Mackenna 4860

Macul, Santiago,


Fono: 56-2-3544605

Fax: 56-2-354-4844

E-mail: davidpreiss@puc.cl

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