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Learn the Lesson

Epic storm Rita has not even played out, and already observers are predicting an even worse impact on oil production than little sister Katrina. We can only hope the good people of Texas will be spared a cataclysm this time.

Whatever happens, cities and oil rigs are already preparing for the worst. Alert emergency teams are out in force, and we will probably escape the level of human tragedy and ineptitude seen earlier this month.

But we should take a pause and realize that we have set ourselves up for these unfolding disasters:

  • Decades of development have taken place in locations devastated by previous storms. (OK, Los Angeles, where I and 20 million other people live, is due for a major quake–but so are parts of the midwest along the New Madrid fault, where no one thinks about earthquakes at all! Another thing about earthquake zones, is that building codes can be strengthened to minimize damage–while low lying areas cannot be made passively safe. Levee and pumping systems require expensive and active measures to maintain.)
  • Historically high oil dependence has left the U.S. economy completely vulnerable.
  • Scientists are nearly unanimous that the worsening storms are related to human activity and CO2 production.

What we don’t need is yet another hurricane of federal money subsidizing rebuilding in harm’s way. Even if it were possible to protect the Gulf coast against future Category 5 storms, we have not taken into account rising sea levels due to global warming. This is not an abstract threat. Two cascades of positive-reinforcing feedback are driving increased global warming, and may be unstoppable. Until science determines the scope of the problem, it is INSANE to move ahead as if we will be able to occupy coastal areas as normal.

The two mechanisms are as follows:

  • SIBERIAN PERMAFROST: Human caused warming is melting the permafrost, which is beginning to release massive quantities of methane. Methane is 20 times as potent as CO2 as a global warming gas. If a way cannot be found to stabilize the methane, further warming will release more and more in a self-reinforcing reaction.
  • ARCTIC ICE CAP: The arctic ice is melting at an unprecedented rate. This changes the albedo (light reflectance) of the surface as the formerly white ice becomes nearly black water. More heat is then absorbed, accelerating the process. Though some are predicting this won’t happen for a hundred years, other models predict that there will be no polar ice cap left by 2050. If this were to occur, it would raise ocean levels worldwide by feet.

We need to learn the lesson now, and stop thinking we can defy the laws of nature. Our national credit card is nearly maxed out. Let’s not spend the rest rebuilding in flood zones and burning through the oil that’s left. Let’s take all the money we can and spend it on renewable energy and relocating people in sensible places.

Oh yeah. That would require that we had a president who actually believed in science.


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