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Archive for May, 2011

Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

In response to our recent post about Christian fundamentalists’ unconcern with the present danger of global warming, our good friend David in Berkeley, a former editor at Sierra Club Books, had this to say:

I’ve been wanting to tell the rapturists et al.: Maybe the tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding in places they didn’t use to happen—and the fact that they’re ten times worse than usual—is god’s way of yelling, screaming, and shaking his fists at you that climate change is real. Duh!

P.S. And for you true believers in Oklahoma: Maybe god’s also letting you know what he thinks about your voting for James Inhofe! D’oh!

James Mountain Inhofe (R-OK), of course, is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

David also sent along a link to a fine Washington Post op-ed by Bill McKibben (author of The End of Nature), “A Link Between Climate Change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!

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We agree entirely, and so might many who are freaked out by the terrifying tornadoes that ripped through Joplin, Missouri, and north of Minneapolis on Sunday, and through central Oklahoma on Tuesday, and in Alabama in April. Verily, it is like unto a plague of extreme weather. There have been so many tornadoes and super-tornadoes this year it’s become impossible to remember them all. (Oh, and then there’s the recent/current Mississippi River flooding caused by excessive rainfall in April.) The New York Times reports about Joplin: “More than 116 people were killed in a tornado outbreak on May 22, bringing the year’s total to over 480 and making it the deadliest year since 1953, when 519 people were killed.” (See list of disaster aid organizations below.)

Andrew C. Revkin of the Times reports in “Tornado Outbreak Possible in Kansas and Oklahoma” that the  Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service “has issued a blunt warning to Kansas and Oklahoma and adjacent regions to be prepared for the worst on Tuesday.”

Revkin adds that the 2011 hurricane season begins June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is warning that the hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean should be more intense than normal. Further, NOAA warns, “Sea surface temperatures where storms often develop and move across the Atlantic are up to two degrees Fahrenheit warmer-than-average.”

But back to David’s point about extreme weather events in places where they didn’t used to happen, we recall quite vividly the freakish tornado storm that unleashed micro-bursts of tree-toppling winds of 60 to 80 m.p.h. in Queens and Brooklyn in Sept. 16, 2010. New York City is not anywhere near Tornado Alley (Oklahoma and Kansas). Not normally.

And yet the fervent faithful may still prefer to believe—as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have so often warned—that natural disasters are signs of God’s wrath about abortions or the “homosexual agenda” and so on. (“Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest . . . la la la . . .” )

The correlation between global warming and extreme weather is almost never simple and clear-cut, but it is demonstrable, and intensifying. It is known, for example, that warmer sea waters fuel more intense hurricanes. Global warming does not necessarily “cause” more hurricanes, but increases the likelihood that those that do arise will be more ferocious. Such was the case with Hurricane Katrina.

For a few accounts of the relationship between climate change and increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods, and even allergies, check out these sources from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and these Wikipedia articles on effects of global warming and extreme weather.

For science-based reporting and commentary on climate change we recommend Andrew Revkin, a science and environment writer for the New York Times who blogs at DotEarth (NYT). We also highly recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and her excellent reporting on climate and environment for The New Yorker. See for example “Uncomfortable Climate” on what the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives means for the earth’s climate.

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World Survives to Be Raptured by CO2 Poisoning and Believers’ Negligence

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

“Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed—even hastened—as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. . . .

“Why care about the earth, when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?”

—Glenn Scherer, “The Godly Must Be Crazy: Christian-Right Views Are Swaying Politicians and Threatening the Environment

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On Friday at the Union Square subway station it was difficult to walk from one train line to another without bumping into believers handing out leaflets about the end of the world, scheduled for Saturday, May 21, at 6:00 p.m. We were running late so we stepped around them, but they were great in number and made quite an obstacle course. How they present an obstacle in other ways is explained below.

Now that the sun has risen on a new day, May 22, it appears the planet has survived the series of cataclysms predicted for May 21, but don’t be sad: There are any number of other catastrophes lined up for us, some of them avoidable.

These believers are part of the problem. If only they believed in global warming, aka climate change, which is all too real, unlike the imaginings of Harold Camping of Family Radio that May 21 would be Judgment Day . . . or that the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 spells our doom.

People seem to want doom and catastrophe. Well, that can be arranged.

Judgment Day actually is happening but in slow motion, and has been unfolding for decades, but the faithful and the corporate-serving conservatives they elect to Congress are stubbornly ignoring the threat, or are even welcoming the end. ThinkProgress.org reported last November that 50% of the new GOP class of 2010 deny the existence of manmade climate change. A 2002 Time-CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the book of Revelations are going to come true. We expect that percentage has only increased.

In 2005, months before Hurricane Katrina, Bill Moyers wrote a chilling column titled “There Is No Tomorrow,” which has long been posted in the “Enviro Reading Room” after the essay on our Environment page, that draws upon “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” a powerful article (quoted above) by Glenn Scherer published at Grist.org around the time of the 2004 presidential election. Moyers, by the way, is a former minister and a man of faith, but he has no patience for those who ignore the destruction of the Creator’s handiwork, our once beautiful planet. See some choice passages from Scherer below.

Does a Global Sea-Level Rise of 10 to 20 Feet Sound to You Like a Matter of National Security?

Here is why  climate change matters to a blog concerned primarily with Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Carbon emissions aggravate global warming, which intensifies hurricanes and raises sea levels. What good are Category 5–strength levees if sea levels rise by 10 or 20 feet or more, as scientists have warned may happen in this century? If Greenland were to melt, the seas would rise 23 feet. If Antarctica also were to melt, seas would rise 38 feet.

Estimates vary, but considering the speed at which the ice caps are melting, some scientists foresee sea-level rises of more than 10 feet, possibly over 20, in the next century. The last time the earth’s surface temperature was at its present warmth—3 million years ago—the sea level was about 75 feet higher. (“Swiftly Melting Planet 2007”)

And one other thing that we think is kind of important as we approach hurricane season (begins June 1):

Global warming has been found to increase the intensity of hurricanes (though a definite link to causing more hurricanes has not been established). As Katrina showed, fiercer intensity is bad enough. (“Penguins Are Melting”)

It really doesn’t matter whether man-made industrial emissions are the primary cause of global warming: the fact is that the planet is warming. That fact alone should be enough to spur humankind to concentrated action. Denial, indifference, or inertia constitute negligent homicide—and the killing of most other life forms other than bacteria and cockroaches. What’s the word for “planet-killing”?

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To Save New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Morganza Spillway Is Opened; Only 2nd Opening Since 1954

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

“The President of the Mississippi River Commission Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh has directed the New Orleans District Commander Col. Ed Fleming to be prepared to operate the Morganza Floodway within 24 hours. The operation will include the deliberate and slow opening of the structure.” —U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement, May 13

On Saturday at 3:00 Central Standard Time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the first 25-foot-wide bay of the Morganza Spillway for only the second time in the structure’s nearly 60-year history. The last time was in 1973. The primary objective of the opening is to reduce the likelihood of the swollen Mississippi River flooding the port cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans downstream.

If the Corps had not opened the Morganza, reports Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune, the river would have crested at 19.5 feet at New Orleans, “only a half-foot below the tops of levees and floodwalls in the city.”

The Corps announced that, at least for now, the Morganza opening will be smaller than was suggested earlier: present plans call for 125,000 cubic feet of water per second to be diverted into the Atchafalaya River and Basin instead of the earlier projection of 300,000 cfs. That is less than one-quarter of the total capacity (600,000 cfs) that the spillway could divert if all 125 bays were opened. The opening of the bays will be gradual, beginning with one or two at a time in order to let the Atchafalaya fill as gently and slowly as possible; there will not be a torrent or tsunami rushing into the Atchafalaya Basin.

Flooding will still be considerable, however, over some 3,000 square miles of Acadiana. In some areas the water will be 25 feet deep. About 25,000 people will be affected. Governor Jindal has directed parish administrators in the Atchafalaya Basin parishes to direct people living in the flood plain to evacuate. “Now is the time to take action. Don’t delay. Don’t hope something will change.”

The higher water is expected to reach Morgan City within three days of the opening.

It is predicted that the Mississippi will crest at New Orleans on Monday, March 23.

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New Orleans Is Most Likely Safe from River Flooding

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

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There’s a certain trepidation in writing that headline, but . . .

Despite over $2 billion in damages, possibly to reach $4 billion from the Mississippi River Flood of 2011, including dramatic flooding upriver around Cairo, Memphis, and Vicksburg—and despite scary images and headlines on screen and paper—the city of New Orleans should be safe from inundation from the historically high waters now coursing down the Mississippi toward the Gulf. The flooding is the result of normal springtime snowmelt compounded by record rainfall from two major storm systems across the U.S. during April. (See Mississippi River watershed map below; click to enlarge.)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already begun opening the Bonnet Carré spillway upriver from the city (photo below). There will be flooding in the Atchafalaya Basin—possibly around 3 million acres—once water is diverted from the Morganza Spillway, a decision that is expected soon from the Corps of Engineers. And deep-draft shipping may be temporarily suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard if water levels rise to just a little higher than they are now; Americans “upriver” may experience a spike in gas prices as supplies are temporarily interrupted by the halting of oil tanker traffic between Baton Rouge and the Gulf.

Read the Headlines with Some Skepticism

Under the ominous headline “Mississippi River Flooding in New Orleans Area Could Be Massive if Morganza Spillway Stays Closed,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Wednesday that based upon the best information available from the Corps of Engineers, the staggering volume of water making its way down the Mississippi could cause “levee failures and massive inundation of metro New Orleans, worse than Hurricane Katrina, if the Morganza spillway is not opened to divert river water down the Atchafalaya basin. The bad news for people living along the Atchafalaya: the Corps of Engineers predicts they will flood in either case.” Although the article itself was measured, not alarmist, the headline implied there was a possibility that the Corps might decide not to open the Morganza Spillway. Another headline warned, “Corps Officials Fear Flooding.” Note to the reader: It is the Corps’ job to fear flooding and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Now, reporters don’t write the headlines, and the body of an article is often less alarming than the headline crafted by some news editor. But “Flooding Could Be Massive” sort of got our attention, so we checked around.

An engineer friend in the New Orleans area who knows people at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the Corps is monitoring the situation very closely all along the river, per established protocol, and just waiting for Major General Michael Walsh to give the word about opening the Morganza Spillway. Major General Walsh is president of the Mississippi River Commission and commander of all USACE districts along the river. Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein writes that General Walsh is expected to announce his decision to open the Morganza spillway between Friday and Tuesday (May 13 and 17).

Our engineer friend says, “Walsh is going to wait until the last possible moment to give the order just in case something changes in the river or they [the Corps] discover a better alternative. And when I say, ‘last possible moment,’ that is taking into account the timeline between when the order is given and everything that has to happen to safely open the structure. This stuff is really well thought out. The hydraulics, structures and levee engineers there have been working this 7 days a week for the past two weeks. . . . New Orleans is safe for now. Never say never, but we have no reason to panic as of right now.”

[ Click here for City of New Orleans Emergency Preparedness / Flood Fight information ]

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A Reader Replies re: the Killing of Osama bin Laden

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Our friend Archie in New Rochelle, New York, takes issue with part of yesterday’s post on the killing of Osama bin Laden. The points Archie makes about bin Laden’s pre-9/11 relationship to the United States—or the U.S.’s to bin Laden—are factually correct (and see Further Reading list below). Whether you agree with his argument or not, we regard Archie as one of the most knowledgeable writers and editors we’ve ever known: thoughtful, sober, and principled. And a good friend whose views we respect.

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Re: “Mission Accomplished. Now Focus on Threats Closer to Home”:

I’m with you on the second part of your message, which I read as that we need to deal with the problems we have created. I’m not with you on the idea that killing bin Laden is “a good thing.” I think a good thing would have been capturing him and, with the cooperation of others (who were not prejudicially involved), making him confront the things he did.

You may say, he and a lot of others can’t be expected to be held accountable because they are either (model A:) evil; or (model B:) mentally ill. I think that if these are the standards we’re “upholding,” we need to be clear that we are applying them to others when we’re unwilling to apply them to ourselves. To a large degree, we made bin Laden: he was our Golden Boy when he was anti-Soviet, just as Saddam Hussein was our Golden Boy when he was anti-Iranian. Bin Laden hid out in our client state Afghanistan, and then in our client state Pakistan. His family had gotten rich in our client state Saudi Arabia. The main difference between the client states is that Afghanistan and Pakistan are leftovers from the days when we had to support anyone who opposed our enemies—that is, anyone who was opposed to the Soviet Union or to a state (India) that was friendly with the Soviet Union—while Saudi Arabia’s main attraction—is there any other?—is oil (hello, Libya!). Pakistan illustrates the proposition, I forget at the moment whose, that we were so morally dominated by the Soviet Union (by “Communism”) that we signed up with any crook or tyrant who announced that he was opposed to it—Franco, the Diem brothers, you name ’em. Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s least democratic states, represents the proposition, so clearly seen here in the Slave Trade, as in more recent endeavors, that Money Talks. That we’re so worked up about the acts of a “twisted” member of the power structure of either of these countries speaks volumes.

Let’s deal with our own criminals.

—Archie Hobson

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Mission Accomplished: Bin Laden Is Dead.
Now Focus on Threats Closer to Home.

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

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[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Last September, Levees Not War raised the question whether Hurricane Katrina was a more significant catastrophe than 9/11, more emblematic in terms of chronic ills afflicting the United States. Now the question is raised whether the nation faces internal political and economic dangers more pernicious and destructive than Osama bin Laden, lethal as he was, ever posed.

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Well, this ought to change the subject from royal weddings and birth certificates for a few days.

It is a good thing that Osama bin Laden is dead, and good that it was U.S. forces that killed him. There is a certain (long-delayed) revenge satisfied in that, shared pretty much equally across the nation.* It is also good for this president—politically and for his standing within the military and foreign policy establishment—that his promise to bring bin Laden to justice—to death, that is—has been fulfilled. (Click here for public reaction photos; here for newspaper front pages; and here for bin Laden’s life in pictures—including a shot of him as a mujahedin wearing a very American-looking uniform in the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s.)

Much will be said and written by better-informed and deeper-thinking authorities, but on this important occasion we wanted in our own modest way to offer a few observations we think worth keeping in mind.

First, Americans must not gloat about the killing of this enemy. It’s done. It’s good that it’s done. Any loud grandstanding or other exploitation of this event for political or commercial self-promotion should be avoided. It should not be an occasion to further insult Arabs and Muslims. There was and is an enormous sense of injustice, impoverishment, and wounded pride among Muslims that bin Laden was able to exploit for his own purposes against the West, the U.S. in particular. No good will come from any further demonization of Arabs and Muslims. Instead we should hope that the independence movements in the Middle East will succeed, as peacefully as possible, in the Egyptian model. (The photo at right shows Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, cheering the death of bin Laden.)

Next, we hope that this “mission accomplished” will energize the anti-war movement (such as it is) and hasten the de-escalation of the wars in Afghanistan/Pakistan and in Iraq and Libya. Much of the justification—the figurehead or “poster child” of the terrorist enemy—is now removed. Can we get back to rebuilding the United States?

No, of course not. The war machine, we fear, will grind on. (Defense appropriations are higher than they ever were during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.) There will be calls from the likes of John McCain and other neocon “security” promoters to identify new threats that call for ever-expanding aggressions overseas. Verily, with only a few exceptions, we tend to see these forces as greater threats to peace and national security than anything outside our borders.

The personal attacks on this president and demonization of new enemies will go on. We expect that within days—on Fox News it’s probably already under way—fresh insults and unfounded accusations and outright foolishness will prevail. Sometimes it seems the United States—or the far right, so-called conservative dimension of the national psyche—cannot exist without an enemy, whether in the form of despised immigrants, anarchists, communists, socialists, minorities, etc.

Pardon our pessimism, but aside from the brave working people’s resistance movement in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest where labor rights are under assault, there’s been little to inspire confidence in improvements. The long-awaited killing of bin Laden is not going to change agenda of Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks, or Americans for Prosperity—nor will it infuse fresh adrenaline into the hearts of Democrats. The far-right corporatists of the Republican party will continue slashing away at the social safety net, insulting workers and the unemployed alike. And, very likely—unless the public forcefully demands that they stand up and fight—the timid centrist-corporatists known as congressional Democrats will continue to allow the savaging of Medicare, Social Security, and any semblance of health care reform and financial regulation. (We use the word “corporatist” because the radical extremists running amok in Washington and statehouses across the nation have nothing to do with conserving.)

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