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Katrina's Power Shows It's Time to Take Global Warming Seriously
Thursday, 08 September 2005
by Michael T. Neuman
Summary: The decimation Hurricane Katrina has brought to Louisiana,
Mississippi and parts of Alabama has sparked increasing scientific
concerns about the threat of global warming. According to the National
Climate Data System, Hurricane Katrina was one of the strongest storms to
impact the coast of the United States during the last 100 years.
Less than a month before Katrina reached the top level of the
Saffir-Simpson scale (Category 5), the prestigious British journal
"Nature" published an article by a professor of atmospheric science at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, showing evidence
that hurricanes and typhoons have intensified in the recent years as
global warming has continued. But as renown and respected author Bill
McKibbens writes, "so far the U.S. has done exactly nothing even to try
to slow the progress of climate change". Maybe it's time to take another
look at this picture?
Hurricane Katrina developed initially as a tropical depression in the
southeastern Bahamas on August 23rd and strengthened into Tropical Storm
Katrina the next day. As the storm moved southwest across the tip of the
Florida peninsula, Katrina's winds decreased slightly before regaining
hurricane strength in the Gulf of Mexico. As it traveled over the warmer
than usual waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it developed into a much
stronger and larger storm, ultimately reaching "Category 5" strength
before moving landward as a Category 4 hurricane and settling over
southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Alabama.
Katrina's had sustained winds during landfall of 140 mph and 902 mb
minimum central pressure - the 4th lowest on record for an Atlantic storm
- but its unusually large size, with widespread and heavy rain, that most
likely led to the breaching of the levees that had protected New Orleans
for so many years.
Hurricane Katrina brings a foretaste of environmental disasters to come,
according to environmental author Bill McKibben. "Almost no one is
addressing the much larger problems: the scandalous lack of planning that
has kept us from even beginning to address climate change, and the sad
fact that global warming means the future will be full of just this kind
of horror", McKibben warns.
He continues: "we're emitting far more carbon than we were in 1988, when
scientists issued their first prescient global-warming warnings. Even if,
at that moment, we'd started doing all that we could to overhaul our
energy economy, we'd probably still be stuck with the 1 degree Fahrenheit
increase in global average temperature that's already driving our current
disruptions. Now scientists predict that without truly dramatic change in
the very near future, we're likely to see the planet's mercury rise 5
degrees before this century is out".
Worldwide temperature data clearly show globally averaged temperatures
have been increasing sharply since the late 1970s.
The temperature data continues to be validated in real world conditions
including thawing of the massive permafrost region, retreat of mountain
glaciers, pole ward movement of seasonal snowlines, extended growing
seasons, reductions in lake ice cover periods in winter and deadlier heat
waves in summer (vice versa in Southern Hemisphere).
The melting of the permafrost region is of particular concern since it
covers roughly 1/5 of the Earth's surface, exists at varying depth levels
and releases methane gas following its thawing and decay. When the winter
freezing is of shorter duration, owing to climate warming, the spring and
summer thaw runs deeper and extends into the more ancient permafrost. The
active layer -- the layer that freezes and thaws annually -- has been
extending deeper and deeper into the permafrost each year.
Because of the lack of federal initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, considered by the vast majority of scientists to be the
underlying cause of global warming, a number of U.S. states are looking
at establishing their own programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas
Nine northeastern states - Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts,
New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont - are
developing a plan to cap and then reduce the level of greenhouse gas
emissions from power plants. Under the plan, New York, New Jersey,
Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island
and Vermont would cap carbon dioxide emissions at 150 million tons a year
-- roughly equal to the average emissions in the highest three years
between 2000 and 2004. Starting in 2015, the cap would be lowered, and
emissions would be cut by 10 percent in 2020.
A group of U.S. states on Tuesday challenged a July court ruling
upholding the Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to regulate
greenhouse gas emission, a factor in global warming.
The group, which includes the attorneys general of Maine, New Mexico,
Oregon, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, said the EPA could not
refuse to regulate greenhouse gases "simply because it opposes such
regulation on policy grounds."
Meanwhile, California, Washington and Oregon are considering a similar
pact, while the California Air Resources Board has also ordered
automakers to reduce their global-warming emissions by 30 percent,
starting in 2009.
Other states are challenging the federal government to comply with laws
that require more energy efficient product standards. Yesterday, a
coalition of 14 states and the City of New York reportedly sued the U.S.
Department of Energy for failing to adopt stronger energy-saving
standards mandated by Congress for twenty-two common appliances that use
large amounts of electricity,
natural gas and oil. Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said
in announcing the lawsuit that the efficiency standards sought by the
lawsuit would generate substantial savings for consumers and reduce air
pollution and global warming emissions from power plants.
Within the State of Wisconsin, however, the Wisconsin Legislature and the
governor have not seen fit to neither establish nor implement any set of
policies or program measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from
Wisconsin sources, despite their receiving a statewide level petition on
Earth Day this past spring with several hundred signatures of
Wisconsinites requesting the state to take the threat of climate change
and how it will impact Wisconsin more seriously than they have in the
The "Wisconsin Climate Change Legislation Petition" requested the State
of Wisconsin create climate change legislation and programs aimed at
reducing greenhouse gas emission sources in Wisconsin and ensure optimal
governmental response to the climate change problems in Wisconsin.
Specifically, the petition requested the Wisconsin Legislature to: (1)
"give the creation and enactment of greenhouse gas reduction and global
warming preparedness legislation the highest possible priority ... so
Wisconsin joins the fight against accelerating global warming in a timely
manner"; and to: (2) "develop and establish a statewide program that
reduces greenhouse gases emissions from transportation, electric power
producing plants and household furnaces and appliances by offering
financial incentives to Wisconsin citizens to drive less, fly less and
use less energy in households on an annual basis".
However, the 2005 State of Wisconsin Biennial Budget, as passed by the
Legislature in July and signed by Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, contains
neither policies nor programs aimed achieving meaningful levels of
greenhouse gas emission reductions in the state, nor does it require any
specific preparedness planning for the scientifically predicted negative
outcomes that global warming is projected to bring to Wisconsin (such as
increasing drought, more flash floods, reduction in snow and ice based
tourism, agricultural industry losses, increased potential for deadly
As a matter of fact, the Legislature cut in half the funding level for
the state's existing "Focus on Energy" (public benefits) program again.
Public benefits is a program that encourages conservation and improved
energy efficiency in buildings and achieves demonstrated returns of
nearly $6 in benefits to state residents and businesses for every dollar
spent on energy conservation and efficiency measures.
Furthermore, the Governor's highly touted and recently publicized
"Conserve Wisconsin" agenda will do little to preserve Wisconsin's air
quality, waters, wildlife, vegetation and human resources in the long run
(50-100 years), because the plan is not aggressive enough in controling
greenhouse gas emissions necessary for maintaining environmental
For example, how can a plan that advocates conserving Wisconsin's
resources come even close to doing that without addressing the constantly
increasing emissions from cars, trucks, airplanes, trains and buses? The
state needs to develop a plan for reducing the number of miles driven in
the state, rather than continuing to build wider and larger capacity
roads which only serve to encourage even more driving and more fuel
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation reported last month that the
number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on the Wisconsin Highway System in
2004 reached an all time high of 60.4 billion motor vehicle miles
traveled. Assuming an average of fuel efficiency of 20 miles per gallon
of fuel and a emissions at 22 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per gallon
of fuel burned, there were 30 million additional tons of carbon dioxide
emitted to the atmosphere from motor vehicle driving in Wisconsin in just
Since the life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeds 100 years, the
volumes of it emitted yearly are additive from year to year, which makes
the blanket of CO2 in the atmosphere thicker and thicker, which makes the
atmosphere itself more effective at retaining the heat that bounces off
the earth's surface (after the sun's rays strike the earth's surface),
resulting in warming of the atmosphere.
The United States is the leading producer of greenhouse gases to the
environment of all the world's countries, with emissions of 25% of the
total quantities of greenhouse gases from human activities. The
transportation sector in the U.S. emits 33% of the country's total
contribution of greenhouse gases, with highway travel responsible for 85%
of U.S. transportation sector's total greenhouse gas emissions. By
expanding the capacity of the state's highway system, the Wisconsin
Department of Transportation encourages even more motorized vehicular
travel on Wisconsin's highway system and the nation as a whole.
Reducing fuel burning in transportation, energy production, heating and
recreation should be number one on the U.S. and Wisconsin agenda. If the
tragedy of Katrina is to have any positive results in Wisconsin and
elsewhere, it should be to wake people up to the reality of what things
could be like in the future if we don't start to greatless reducing our
energy use in conserve energy. A proposal plan to reduce future
environmental threats associated with global warming is offered in the
link that follows.
Support - Financial incentives to conserve fuel and reduce greenhouse gas
emissions - ConserveNow!
For a printable copy of this document, please send a request to the
Madison IMC: http://madison.indymedia.org/