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Disasters

[ 85 ] January 11, 2013 |

Alyssa Battistoni has an interesting and lengthy piece at Jacobin about natural disasters, what will cause us to do something about them, what lessons do we leawrn, and a lot of other things. I think it’s been out for a little while, but I just read it.

The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing.

One nit to pick with Alyssa. Historians need to do a better job of pushing back on the myths around the Dust Bowl. She uses it as an example of when the U.S. did react to a natural disaster:

The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration—perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify—or deflect blame for—a familiar neoliberal agenda.

This lesson from the Dust Bowl really isn’t true (I’ll leave the contemporary issues of labor and environmental movements for now). The New Deal and Dust Bowl were almost totally coincidental. New Deal policies exacerbated what we see as a major consequence of the Dust Bowl–migration out of the Plains. Tom Joad and clan were not pushed out by the Dust Bowl, it was centralization of agriculture and the eviction of tenant farmers due to AAA policies. Two major impacts of the Dust Bowl on federal policy was the Soil Conservation Service and the National Grassland system, but neither of these were major federal responses that changed the nation in particularly profound ways (important as the SCS is from some perspectives). The other was the beginning of the agricultural subsidy system, which although heavily mutated in the 70s always had the effect of centralizing agricultural control with big farmers. Dust Bowl policies really weren’t an example of successful left politics. By the 1950s, more native prairie was plowed up than ever and the agricultural capitalism that created the Dust Bowl was more powerful than it had ever been in 1932. As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.

Comments (85)

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  1. Kurzleg says:

    Are the NY hurricanes really evidence of global climate change and not just freak weather occurrences? I’m not a skeptic of climate change at all, just hadn’t heard these hurricanes used as evidence for it. What’s the theorized mechanism at play?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      People will always be able to say that weather events were freak and not connected to global climate change. There’s no way to isolate an individual event and say–yes! this is climate change. But given the unprecedented nature of such storms in New York combined with hundreds of other things combined with the fact that ocean water temperatures were 5 degrees above normal at the time of Sandy which given the relatively slim variation in ocean temperature is gigantic, yes it was almost certainly climate change enhanced.

    • BigHank53 says:

      The best analogy I’ve heard was this one: global warming didn’t cause a late-season hurricane to strike the Northeast. It did, however, make sure that late-season hurricane got all its shots and had a big healthy breakfast…

    • Malaclypse says:

      What’s the theorized mechanism at play?

      In a nutshell, warm water increases storm energy, while cold water/land decreases storm energy.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      I don’t know much about hurricanes specifically, but I’ve heard many times that global warming is expected to increase the overall energy of storms.

      In the documentary Chasing Ice (nothing remarkable, but happens to be what I saw most recently), one of the scientists made a useful analogy for the general question of “did global warming cause this one event?” Consider a baseball player who takes steroids and starts hitting twice as many home runs. Can you say that the steroids caused any particular homer? No, but we all accept that the steroids can cause the increase.

      • Richard says:

        But as I explain below Katrina was a big storm but not one of unprecedented size. What was unusual was that it hit populated areas of Mississippi while still strong and that when it hit New Orleans, by then reduced to Category Three, the levees broke because of man made failures. There were ecological problems related to Katrina such as the elimination of marsh land but not global warming. It was the type of storm which has routinely hit that area every thirty five to forty years. But in previous times, the hits weren’t directly on the city and the levees didn’t break

        • Vance Maverick says:

          I can see that this thread is going to bring out the, ah, strong-minded commenters.

          Leave aside that the question was about the New York hurricanes, not Katrina. The claim about the impact of warming on storms is that it will increase their energy. This means that it will increase the frequency of storms of every size, even sizes that were not uncommon before.

          Asking “did warming contribute to this one storm?” will get a qualified Yes in every case.

          • Richard says:

            I only have strong views about Katrina (which Erik referenced in his post as a natural disaster caused by climate change – he’s wrong about that although I generally agree with his point about natural disasters – we dont seem to learn from them). Its very possible that Sandy was partially due to global warming (although I think the scientists are still making up their minds about this)

            • djillionsmix says:

              “although I think the scientists are still making up their minds about this”

              Well the important thing is that they’re certain, we wouldn’t want to do anything to keep people from dying before they were certainly certain.

              • Richard says:

                I think its very unclear at this point, not just a question of certainty, whether Sandy’s fury was caused by climate change or not. But thats really irrelevant. Climate change or not, there are things that can be considered and done to reduce the likelihood of damage from a storm like Sandy. Erik spoke of them in a post about about a month ago – restoration of marshlands, oyster beds, etc.

          • Kurzleg says:

            This is why I asked the question in the first place. Based on the comments here we should see an increase in the frequency of storms as well as in the intensity. Maybe 2 hurricanes hitting NY in consecutive years is the beginning of such an increase in frequency, but I’d feel more comfortable about the conclusion with a bigger sample size. I guess I’m not comfortable using Sandy to try to convince people that climate change is really happening. If we have Milly, Nelly and Sally hitting NY in the next 3-5 years, then the picture becomes clearer for people.

            • Leeds man says:

              I guess I’m not comfortable using Sandy to try to convince people that climate change is really happening.

              Nor should you be. There’s plenty other evidence out there. Glaciers, arctic ice. Listen to the Inuit.

            • djillionsmix says:

              Obviously what matters is whether you’re comfortable, and not the death and destruction.

              Just a few more massive deadly storms, then we’ll feel okay about acknowledging the problem that it’s already too late to do anything about, lol.

        • Light Rail Tycoon says:

          Hurricane Katrina was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, and the forth most powerful hurricane ever, thanks to unusually high water temperature. These records were then broken by later storms the same year. 2005 remains the longest, busiest and most destructive hurricane season in recorded history.

          New Orleans may have been due for a hit, but Katrina hit harder because of global warming.

          • Richard says:

            Most people disagree. Watch the Harry Shearer documentary on Katrina. Forget the name but its available through Netflix streaming. Katrina was only a Category 3 when it hit New Orleans (it had been a Category 5 when it was in the Gulf). The devastation in New Orleans was solely caused by the levees being breached despite the fact they were built to withstand a Category 3. The devastation in Mississippi was caused by the hurricane and could not have been prevented but the devastation in New Orleans was manmade

            2005 was a very heavy year for hurricane activity in the Gulf but every year since then has been below historical norms.

            • Richard says:

              From Wikipedia:

              “Among recorded Atlantic hurricanes, it was the sixth strongest overall.”

              It wasnt the most powerful Gulf hurricane ever nor the fourth most powerful ever. It was a very strong hurricane like the ones the Gulf gets every thirty five or forty years. However, it was an extremely deadly and destructive one because the levees failed.

              • Sherm says:

                I could be wrong, but I thought that Katrina was the fourth strongest Atlantic storm (by pressure) and that Wilma was the strongest. I’m a weather enthusiast btw.

                • Richard says:

                  The 1780 Hurricane (not given a name) may have been stronger than Wilma but we cant be sure since it was before we have anything resembling accurate measurements. It was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane – over 20,000 deaths.

              • Sherm says:

                I stand corrected. Katrina was the sixth strongest. Rita was fourth

              • Light Rail Tycoon says:

                As I said, it lost its rank to storms later in the season, but at the time, it was the most powerful gulf storm and fourth most powerful Atlantic hurricane, as Wikipedia notes in the next section, and as I noted in my next sentence.

                • Richard says:

                  At the time, it was the fourth most powerful recorded Atlantic hurricane – two hurricanes later in 2005 bumped it down to six. But these are hurricanes since they started recording in 1850 or so. We have anecdotal evidence of huge storms hitting New Orleans ever since it was founded and of hurricanes like the 1780 one killing over 20,000 people.. I’m not saying it wasnt a powerful hurricane but it wasnt unprecedented. Hurricanes of this sort go through the Gulf, sometimes creating damage when they hit land, every thirty five to forty years.

                • Richard says:

                  From a Hurricane History of New Orleans:

                  Hurricane Katrina may be the most memorable storm in New Orleans history, but its trajectory across the Pelican State was far from unique. Louisiana was hit by 49 of the 273 hurricanes that made landfall on the American Atlantic Coast between 1851 and 2004. In addition, eighteen of the ninety-two major hurricanes with Saffir-Simpson ratings of category 3 or above have struck the state (U.S. mainland hurricane strikes by state, 1851-2004). On average, one major storm crosses within 100 nautical miles of New Orleans every decade (King, 2006)

                  The entire article is here:

                  http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2010/teams/neworleans1/hurricane%20history.htm

      • drkrick says:

        And to hear some people tell it, both the climate scientists and the baseball writers are big old poopyheads for noticing.

    • snoey says:

      Late season Atlantic hurricanes typically accelerate quickly northeast and leave. The left turn that Sandy took was due to a blocking formation over Greenland. This may have been a freak or may now be normal due to the Arctic warming.

      • Kurzleg says:

        Do you happen to know if the same was true the prior year?

        • snoey says:

          I’ve lived in SE Mass for 30 some years, and based on memory and review of NOAA’s tracking maps a left turn like that is unique. A hurricane that late is odd in itself, so maybe the conditions were in place in other years but didn’t have a storm to steer.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            This NYT article suggests that the changes are not just in intensity, but in patterns like this. (One example is that the jet stream over the British Isles moved, with a chain of knock-on effects.)

    • Sherm says:

      Extremely conservative brother-in-law (who has lived on the water his entire life) had 49 inches of water (as per insurance company) in his living room during Sandy. He had lived in the same house since the late 70′s, and water had never made it inside before. So, when I went down to help him and some others gut their homes a few days after the storm, he sees me get out of my car, comes up to me and gives me a hug, and says “Al Gore was right.” And he was only half-kidding.

  2. mds says:

    our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do.

    Yeah, but if we spent money on fixing anything, we would be saddling our children and grandchildren with government debt. So there.

    • Njorl says:

      What people always leave out is that someone’s grandchildren would be inheriting the bonds for that debt. Our grandchildren would be stuck paying our grandchildren. I’m OK with that.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Over drinks with a friend tonight, I was explaining one of my pet theories: that the liberalism of the past hundred or so years is due to an over-availability of resources, so the elite can afford to be magnanimous and give others rights they hold. With scarcity comes conservatism and a contraction of rights that frightens me. People will be more interested in preserving benefits for their descendants than making sure people of such-and-such hue get education/paid a fair wage/don’t have to live with preventable diseases.

    The post tonight has gotten me rather depressed. Time to hit the wine! Again!

    • Malaclypse says:

      the elite can afford to be magnanimous

      The elite has never been magnanimous. They have, occasionally, been scared into acting out of rational self-interest.

      The threat of tumbrels creates liberalism.

    • agorabum says:

      I can fix this for you:
      the governmental liberalism in the US since the 1930s was primarily due to high marginal tax rates.
      The government simply took the surplus (with rates of 50-90% on the high marginal dollar) and applied it to what it wished.
      Sometimes that was rural electrification and highways. A lot of it was nuclear warheads, bombers, subs, and such.Not much of it was for environmental protection.

      The US is incredibly rich. But with current tax policy, we’ve decided that millionairs and billionairs keeping the vast bulk of their surplus for their pet causes is more important than any significant governmental action to restore tidal wetlands in NY or LA.
      That won’t change until, like in the 30s, there are massive deomcratic majorities in the house and senate.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      Again? Still!

  4. Richard says:

    Katrina was not the result of global warming. As study after study has shown, it was the type of hurricane that hits the Gulf every thirty five or forty years. What was different is that it hit New Orleans AND the levees, which were built to withstand a Hurricane 3 storm like this, failed because of bad planning and construction. If the levees had held like they were supposed to, it would have been another windy and rainy night in the Big Easy. Global warming is leading to more natural disasters, it appears, but Katrina wasn’t one of them.

    • redwoods says:

      Right, because we’re doing so much to update our infrastructure.

      • Richard says:

        I’m not sure if that was meant as a criticism of my point but I assume it was. My point is that Katrina has nothing to do with global warming. It was a fairly normal hurricane for that region. The devastation, however, that it caused was manmade And its the case that the measures taken since Katrina to prevent disaster from another strong hurricane in the area have been inadequate. The levees need to be rebuilt, the marshlands reinstated, etc There will be other strong hurricanes in that area, global warming or not, and we’re not doing enough, both structurally and ecologically, to prevent Katrina-type devastation when they do hit.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I never said Katrina was a result of climate change. I said we didn’t learn any lessons from Katrina.

      • Richard says:

        “The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing”

        This paragraph strongly implies, at the least, that Katrina was the result of climate change. You conflate climate change with the example of Katrina twice in four sentences. But if you aren’t saying that Katrina was the result of climate change, I dont disagree with your point. It seems we dont learn much from natural disasters

  5. Captain Splendid says:

    I’d love to jump on the Global Warming bandwagon, but peak resources are going to bite us in the ass sooner and harder.

    In other words, I’m prepping for Mad Max, not The Day after Tomorrow.

    • UberMitch says:

      I call I’m the Gyro Captain!

    • catclub says:

      So that was why some Salon/Slate teaser was apparently worried about declining future population. I did not click, so can tell no more.

      Perhaps it elides the famine and disease and wars over water.

    • Njorl says:

      Oil is the only fossil fuel which will become scarce before global warming becomes catastrophic. We have sufficient coal and natural gas to turn the sub arctic tropical.

      • Captain Splendid says:

        I know, but when reality starts sinking in on this topic, I’m thinking those mountains of coal and lakes of gas will be a lot harder to use (depending on which country you are).

        There’s no doubt in my mind that “first-world” countries will handle resource scarcity better than others, but it doesn’t mean shit won’t hit the fan during the rest of this decade for pretty much everyone.

        • BigHank53 says:

          Reality? Sinking in? Two items for your consideration:

          It used to be popular to shoot migrating raptors. Not for food, or trophies, or even anything you’d call sport: it was killing things for the sake of killing. Do check the photo at that link.

          Second item: have you read Bill McKibben’s piece on the economics behind fossil fuels? When the biosphere gets in a wrestling match with money…well, you know who usually loses. Trust me, the only way those fossil fuels aren’t going to be extracted and burned is if either too many investors or extraction workers have starved to death.

          • Leeds man says:

            Yeah, McKibben’s piece is a must-read. There are enough proven reserves to fuck the climate (in the rosy view that it isn’t already) several times over, and we will use them.

          • Captain Splendid says:

            Oh, I’ve never had any doubt whatsoever that we will extract and burn every single ounce we can find.

            Problem is, once we start having to hit up the coal and gas out of necessity, it will already be too late.

            Global Warming might come along and help wipe out millions of us, but we’ll already have a head start thanks to all the rioting, famine and war that the loss of cheap oil will bring us.

            • BigHank53 says:

              Actually, I’m starting to think the transition from oil won’t be that traumatic. As oil gradually gets more and more expensive, moving the transit system to electric becomes more affordable, instead of prohibitively expensive. One of the things we tend to forget to how dirt-cheap energy still is. Start figuring the energy costs in a box of cornflakes or a bottle of soda, and even at $300/barrel the biggest impacts are transport and the electricity the retail store uses. So the decline of oil doesn’t require war, famine, etc.

              Of course the GOP is doing all it can to make sure we don’t prepare for the transition in any meaningful way, thereby ensuring extra expense and pain in the future.

              All bets are off should some idiot decide to oh, I don’t know, attack Iran. A sudden price spike like that would break all kinds of things, including a lot of drug and food supply chains.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      We are being bit pretty hard right now.

      Let’s chat when it’s 103 in New York this summer.

  6. Harvey says:

    Every unusual weather event is a result of global warming. Every average day is an anecdote.

    • Murc says:

      Technically, every average day is also the result of global warming, since global warming skews the average.

    • Jon says:

      A predicted consequence of climate change is an increase in the frequency and severity of anomalous weather events. Anamolous weather events can thus be used as evidence for climate change. The frequency of nonanamolous weather events is pretty much definitionally uninteresting and not much evidence for anything. (On a related note, we’re forecast to tie or exceed today’s all time high temperature here in Chicago, 61 F, set in 1880)

      But thanks for playing

  7. Allen says:

    I have an arch-conservative uncle who came from Oklahoma to the NW with the CCC. Goldwater was a bit too conservative for him but you can’t say anything bad to him about FDR. The CCC saved him and his family.

  8. Carbon Man says:

    Here’s the thing, Loomis–you could shut down 100% of all carbon production in the United States tomorrow, and it wouldn’t do jack-shit.

    Why?

    China. China has chose its future, and its future is C-O-A-L, along with being now the world’s largest auto market. There are 1.4 billion of them, and they want cars–and not hybrids, either. SUV sales are off the fucking charts, followed closely by big-ass, big-engined sedans (Buicks are especially popular in China) in Beijing and Shanghai, while hybrids and electrics languish.

    More and more tons and tons of glorious glorious carbon dioxide will be pumped into the atmosphere and there’s shit-all you can do about it.

    • spencer says:

      You do realize that you have to breathe in that shit too, right?

      You have to live in the world that all that CO2 creates too, you know that, right?

      Why should you be happy about that? Is pissing off liberals so important to you that you’re happy – eager, even – to give up years off your life just for the pleasure of seeing liberals unhappy?

      Good lord, you’re a sick human being.

    • Alan in SF says:

      Once again, one of the mightiest rhetorical weapons in the conservative arsenal strikes home: If a single action by the government won’t completely solve a problem, then no action should be taken.

  9. Alan in SF says:

    As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.

    I’m not so sure. Didn’t we learn that Oklahoma and Texas were built by rugged individualists with no help from the gubmint?

  10. Bernard says:

    the marshes in Louisiana were destroyed by saltwater intrusion from canals/shortcuts made by oil companies. Mississippi River water diversion projects could probably counter that loss a little but our coastline has sunk/disappeared already in my life. the River shipping industry would raise hell about these water diversion projects. so one company fights the other and our backyards are washing away and sinking due to increasing water levels/global weather change. and an ever increasing dead zone off our coast every year from chemicals used in Midwest farms, from runoff going into the Mississippi River .

    read about the flood of ’27 where the Business men stole land and blew up the levee unnecessarily, or the local Times Picayune didn’t tell the people in New Orleans anything. Businessmen didn’t want the local Time Picayune newspaper to tell the locals. like mushrooms in the dark.

    not much has changed with Businessmen as time has passed, though now we have increasing sea levels and a non responsive “bought” Government, thanks to the Republican mantra of proving Government is incompetent . Business profits have altered south Louisiana for profit and now the climate/patterns have responded to these alterations in our environment. there are lots of things money can buy. here in Louisiana our politicians have had many years showing us just exactly what. Seeing the same type of corruption elsewhere bodes ill for those impacted by greed and power.

    • Richard says:

      The story of the 1927 flood is an incredible one. The levee at Caernavale was blown up, ostensibly to prevent portions of New Orleans from flooding, but it caused great flooding in other portions of the city – St. Bernard Parish in particular – and was unnecessary because there were breaks in the levee upriver, one on the day after the demolition, that would have prevented any flooding in the city. There’s an excellent book on the subject, Rising Tide.

      Of course, the disaster did give us Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 which has become the semi-official Katrina song

      With regard to the Times-Picayune, it now only publishes three times a week so New Orleans has no daily newspaper. Another tragedy.

  11. rm says:

    The Atlantic has a new piece on why climate change will be okay to live with. Not a parody, I don’t think. I expect The Onion will start just reprinting these articles verbatim.

  12. Alyssa Battistoni says:

    Thanks for reading and responding, Erik. I appreciate the pushback on that example—I’m by no means an expert on that period, and as you note, it’s often mythologized, so I’m grateful for the clarification. Certainly there’s a tendency on the left in particular to romanticize elements of Depression-era politics, and of course even the New Deal wasn’t actually anti-capitalist. While you rightly point out that the farm subsidies of the 1930s actually prefigured those of the 1970s in supporting centralization and consolidation, I’m still interested in thinking more about how ecological imperatives could make the case for more equitable livelihood/basic income schemes (though those can also tilt libertarian/neoliberal). Any Dust Bowl (or other) reading recommendations?

    In any case, your points strengthen the main argument of the piece, which is, as you note, that we shouldn’t really expect disasters to just spur political action, let alone accomplish left goals, and in fact we should probably be wary of the potential for disaster politics to go the other way—Sasha Lilley’s new book Catastrophism is really good on this point. That said, I also think it’s important to avoid hopeless, dismal-past-as-inevitable-future thinking—I suppose this is the political theorist in me coming through, but I do think we need to be alert to moments of contingency and possibility. Expecting disasters to spontaneously mobilize climate action is not the same as examining the moments created by disaster to see how they might be made constructive. And as someone who is likely going to have to live through a fair amount of the impacts of climate change, I don’t really see that we have much choice to do otherwise.

    As for the commenters debating whether Sandy, Katrina, etc. were caused by climate change, you’re missing the point. Erik’s explanation is dead-on—we’ll never be able to identify something as happening “because of climate,” but we can identify things that we would expect to happen in a climate-changed world. Moreover, regardless of whether this particular event was caused by climate change, the narrative that (however briefly) emerged around Sandy really focused on climate, and it’s part of a broader narrative around climate, disasters, and political action that I think needs to be scrutinized more carefully. @Richard and others, if you give the piece a read, I actually don’t use Katrina as an example of a climate-induced/intensified storm, but rather, as an example of a disaster exacerbated by wetlands loss, which I think shares some key elements with climate in terms of the challenges it presents—there are in fact some studies that suggest Katrina was intensified by climate, but generally I do agree that other factors, including but not limited to the levees, were far more salient.

  13. [...] Disasters – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money “The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) [...]

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