What do Hurricane Katrina, the Jacobshavn Glacier and Saudi oil have in common? The answer is not a clever one line joke; but rather that they are all inter-related pieces of a deadly serious abrupt climate change problem that vast numbers of Americans and virtually all our leaders have chosen to ignore for decades. Now our willful ignorance is coming home to roost.
If nothing else is clear in the unbelievably painful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is that we understand that Katrina was the most predictable tragedy ever to occur in American history. For decades all kinds of knowledgeable observers, scientists, journalists, writers, even veteran bureaucrats at FEMA have known that when, not if, the Big One hit New Orleans, there would be hell to pay. The first down payments on the bills have just started to come in.
The situation is pretty simple to understand: as virtually everyone knows, most of New Orleans is below sea level. Added to that uncomfortable fact is that after decades of draining tens of thousands of square miles of Louisiana’s wetlands for development, the drying wetlands’ land mass actually shrinks and contracts. Thus, New Orleans and its surrounding parishes gradually sink ever lower and lower below sea level. And thus, the levees need to be built ever higher, like the dikes in Holland, to hold back the water.
It is also helpful to recall the most basic fact of hurricane formation. Hurricanes are nature’s way of transporting excessive heat from tropical ocean basins away from the equator and toward the poles. Thus, hurricanes happen in the summer when the surface temperature of oceans increases in equatorial regions, such as eastern reaches of the Caribbean basin to create tropical depressions that can grow into monstrous Category 5 hurricanes as increasingly warm ocean temperatures fuel their fury. It is an inconvenient fact for those who continually berate climate change scientists that tropical ocean temperatures have been increasing worldwide for the past two decades. All that heat and all that energy have to go somewhere and that somewhere is what causes hurricanes. This does not necessarily mean that there will be more hurricanes — although that appears also to be happening perhaps for other reasons — but that the hurricanes will be more intense: that is, more category 4 and 5 hurricanes as ocean heat is transported away from the equator toward cooler regions. Unless and until the second law of thermodynamics is repealed, the warming of the oceans will create more Katrinas.
Let’s shift north for a moment — all the way north to Greenland — where the fastest moving glacier in the world is melting next to the town Greenlanders call Ilulissat and the Danish call Jacobshavn. Like Glacier Bay, Alaska, Greenland’s glaciers are a wondrous scene to behold. For months on end, you can visit the town and be treated to a show more spectacular than Old Faithful from the regular, unceasing explosions of massive faces of the glacier exploding into the sea in great sheets of ice and spray around the clock day and night — including the white nights of high summer.
Scientists believe they understand why this glacier, the Sermeq Kujalleq as the native Greenlanders call it, is moving so fast and calving so spectacularly — 8.1 miles in 2003, double the rate of a few decades ago. They trace the glacier’s movement to large pools of water that melt in the summer on top of the vast Greenland ice sheet. This water from the surface melting of the ice cap plunges two miles down through the ice sheet, unfreezing the bottom of the glacier from its rock bed where it is otherwise anchored and lubricating its sleigh ride to the sea. The good news is that Sermeq Kujalleq has become a great tourist attraction; the bad news is that sea level throughout the North Atlantic basin and the rest of the globe is rising. Scientists don’t know how much of sea level rise to attribute to the thermal expansion of the ocean as it warms and how much from the melting of the two largest ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. But there is no doubt that sea level is rising.
You might think that knowing these inconvenient facts would cause political leaders at all levels, city, state and federal, to prohibit development in wetlands and floodplains from so the sea level problems do not just get ineluctably worse. But wetlands don’t vote and so floodplains remain the fastest growing residential development areas along America’s beleaguered coastline. Trent Lott will get his new porch in the Mississippi floodplain rebuilt and we will all be asked to subsidize the cost in terms of increasing insurance premiums nationwide. Live free or die. If you live on an island, however, and need to re-insure your house, the cost will be increasingly shocking, if insurance is available at all.
Now to oil in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. After Katrina, the price of gasoline all over the United States rose an average of 50 cents a gallon. Now it has settled back to only a 38-cent-a-gallon increase on average. The Saudis say they have enough oil to increase their production at will as the world economy’s swing supply side source. A few, a very few lone voices, have their doubts. If you believe the Saudi oil ministers, the price of gasoline should continue to fall as the Saudis open their oil taps and pump more oil to the thirsty world. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think the price of home heating oil that my family depends on this winter will be anything near what is was last winter, which was then already 25 percent higher than the year before.
I believe we have pumped about half of the world’s supply of our fossil fuel energy out of the ground and burned it like there is no tomorrow. We have resisted conservation, and opposed increasing fuel economy in the nation’s fleet of cars for short-term political gains. We’ve denied that we need to pay serious attention to global warming and abrupt climate change scenarios because there is always one scientist to be found who is skeptical. We’ve turned our back on Kyoto and presented no other serious alternative; meanwhile we’ve cut funding for levees and subsidized building in floodplains. Amid all the finger pointing of late, it is also inescapably true that we have gotten what we wanted. The problem stares back at us from our mirrors.