Talking points on Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and climate change
by Daphne Wysham, IPS Fellow / SEEN co-director, September 2005

1) Hurricane intensity is increasing due to ocean warming.

While hurricane frequency is seasonably varied, recent scientific studies show that the intensity of hurricanes is increasing. While one can never say there is a clear link in the chaos of global weather systems between an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a specific weather event, Hurricanes Rita and Katrina appear to fit within the pattern of increasing hurricane intensity. These were the third and fourth most powerful hurricanes in recorded Atlantic basin history, and fed off unusually warm tropical waters.

2) Forget the propaganda: Climate change is real and it is happening.

The Bush administration and its congressional, media, and corporate allies have confused the American public about the science around global warming. But make no mistake: global warming is in fact underway. Temperatures are rising at a pace that may outstrip the capacities of plants and animals -- including humans -- to adapt. Feedback loops, such as melting glaciers (white snow reflects heat; dark soil absorbs it), methane being released from permafrost (methane is over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2), forest fires (releasing stored CO2 into the atmosphere) and other interdependent phenomena all determine whether or not we will face an average 3 to 9 degree Fahrenheit rise over the next century. A 3-degree average Fahrenheit increase will be a tragedy; a 9-degree average change would be a global catastrophe.

3) Hurricane Katrina was as much a manmade disaster as it was a natural disaster.

Hurricane Katrina was made much worse by human interference in the ecosystem on the global, regional and local level. Oil and gas production over the past century has removed critical mass from below, and has accelerated natural subsidence. Levees and concrete channels designed to control the Mississippi have tried unsuccessfully to tame a region of the United States that will grow ever more vulnerable to rising sea levels and hurricanes as the planet warms.

4) A century of petrochemical industrialization and poverty compounded the disaster and poses long-term health risks.

Just as following the attack on the World Trade Centers of 9/11, some government officials are encouraging people to return to the areas devastated by the hurricanes. Yet most people who were exposed to the towers' collapse have reported new respiratory problems and other adverse health effects. And unlike in New York City, some of the most toxic, chemical-laden sites of the world are found in the Mississippi River delta. Poverty compounds this crisis: Over 20 percent of the people of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, live in poverty, and the region suffered from inadequate health care prior to Katrina. The hurricane finished off much of this threadbare infrastructure. Fully funded long-term health care and monitoring for the victims of Katrina must become a prerequisite for relief and reconstruction.

5) Relief and reconstruction can overcome historical patterns of pollution and discrimination by following the environmental justice framework.

The combination of discrimination and pollution in the lower Mississippi River spawned the global environmental justice movement, which is now rallying behind the concept of "Green Relief." This framework emphasizes unity, redressing disparities, cleanup accountability, transparency, skills training, green communities, healthy shelter, long-term health monitoring, and economic diversification.

6) All those who care about social and racial justice, poverty, hunger and disease must place climate change work high on their agendas and not assume it is the purview of only environmentalists any more.

We need all hands on deck. Race and class clearly played a major role in the casualties around these hurricanes. The poor, living on the most marginal land, are predicted to continue to suffer the most, both at home and abroad, as the world warms. Crop failure, an increase in vector-borne diseases, and water shortages all hit the poorest the hardest. But none of us are immune: In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we are beginning to glimpse how an increase in such ferocious storms affects every aspect of our society, and thus must urgently be addressed at the local, regional, national and international level.

7) Hurricane Katrina's aftermath places in plain view of the American people just how skewed our budget priorities are, particularly around the war in Iraq.

Not only are we spending hundreds of billions on a war based on lies in Iraq, the National Guard is stretched thin, due to the war in Iraq, and was ill-prepared to protect its own country, as a result. This disaster reveals just how vulnerable President George W. Bush has made our country to future disasters, either "natural" or manmade. As with 9/11, the Bush administration ignored information about the potential for disaster. Government officials, activists, journalists, and scientists repeatedly raised concerns, which were treated with routine disregard by the Bush administration. Instead of protecting its citizens, the White House and Congress slashed budgets for levee construction and wetlands protection and censored the science around climate change at the highest levels of government.

8) Reconstruction contracts must be allotted only to corporations that have not been fined for illegal and corrupt practices in the past.

Like in Iraq, reconstruction contracts appear to be largely going to major corporations with strong ties to the Bush Administration (Halliburton), despite allegations of over-charging and corrupt activity in Iraq and elsewhere. Congress must prevent the continuation of cronyism .

9) We all have a stake in the U.S. returning to the climate negotiations.

The international community is to be commended for its generosity and compassion in response to these hurricanes. They have helped the U.S. even though this country emits roughly a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases and refuses to engage in meaningful climate change preventative measures. The U.S. is attempting to undermine the globally negotiated Climate Convention by shifting leadership to bodies over which it has more control, namely the G8 and World Bank. The US should show its gratitude by rejoining the international community in climate negotiations this November in Montreal, abandoning the reckless G8 and World Bank processes, and agreeing to drastically limit its consumption of and public investment in fossil fuels.

To learn more, please visit our websites:

Sustainable Energy & Economy Network

Institute for Policy Studies