Thursday, May 5, 2011

The ill posed question - or how Andrew Revkin got it wrong

In a recent dot Earth post Andrew C Revkin discusses what is most relevant when discussing the US' most lethal tornadoes since 1932 - climate change or resilient housing? The disaster is terrifying. So far 291 people are confirmed dead.

Revkin's bottom line is this: Limiting emissions of greenhouse gases is a long-term challenge that needs to be addressed in ways that achieve results; building and living resiliently in tornado zones is a real-time imperative, with or without a push from climate change.

F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007

A telling point is that Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi were much worse hit than S:t Louis. That would suggest that it is not the tornadoes themselves that kill people, but the lack of preparation. Revkin quotes the meteorologist Mike Smith, suggesting a number of different reasons - St Louis has warning system independent of the power grid and far better shelters in form of basements.

Of course, quoting this Mike Smith is not the best idea in an article that relates to climate change. Smith does not believe in IPCC climatic projections - you can watch him make a fool of himself in this video on YouTube. Isn't it embarrassing with a meteorologist who can't tell the difference between a weather forecast and a climate projection?

But you can not accuse the man of being inconsistent. Just as he doesn't think that the 2011 tornadoes are related to climate change, he didn't think that the 2008 floods were.

It will probably take more than a couple of deaths to convince a man like Mike Smith. My post, however is about Revkin, an influential writer I have a certain amount of respect for. It is sad to see him fall in the age-old mistake of putting the question as a choice between people and planet. This particular disaster shows maybe more than any other that it is instead a choice between profit/power or planet/people.

Let's begin with the tricky question that Smith doesn't understand - the difference between climate and weather. Weather is what creates specific storms. Climate is what causes the likeliness for all kinds of weathers. In a world with 349 ppm co2 in the atmosphere storms like those ravaging Alabama are rare phenomena. In a world with 500 ppm co2 in the atmosphere they are commonplace. but there will be windy days and sunny days in both worlds.

Climate change is the obvious culprit if we see a trend of more frequent and more devastating storms (as we do), but it can not cause any specific storm. An analogy is that no one has died from an unhealthy diet. If you in spite of that think that a healthy diet can make you live longer and healthier, you have every reason to believe that climate change will lead to more storms like these, and that extreme weather events are more common now than in our grandparent's times because of their actions.

What Revkin, and Smith as well, does grasp is that the outcome of these extreme weather events does not depend on the levels of co2 in the atmosphere, but on how well prepared we are for the kind of eather these levels produce. It is ironic that a less developed economy would be better equipped than ours to withstand climate change - our global supply chains and coastal metropoles are anything but resilient. Waters are rising, and if trucks can not travel 24/7 through Europe the risk of foot shortages in a country like Sweden would be real.

Too many of those killed in these storms lived in mobile homes, or in homes not fitting to withstand a tornado. Many of them were poor. If we allow poverty to exist we expose thousand of citizens to dangerous weather. How can we make sure that that is not the case next time a twister strikes? Revkin lists a number of improvements but forgets to mention that it would take regulations and surveillance to make sure they are followed. Which might not be such an easy thing to achieve in today's political climate.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter - the real problem is not our lifestyle - it changes faster than we can think, but a corrupted political system ruled by private interests. James Hansen's book Storms of my grandchildrena> makes it very clear. A working democracy would not let oil companies hunt for oil in Canadian tar sands, neither on off shore drilling sites. In a working democracy scientists would be unhindered to communicate with politicians and public. If the facts that everybody knows were presented with the urgency of economic news, it would not be difficult to muster political support for battling climate change. After all, it is the voters' basements who will be flooded.

So how come politicians find time to hunt terrorists but not to protect its citizens? Unless we presume a conspiracy, or shameless stupidity among voters and politicians alike, the simple answer is that the political system is controlled by interests that make profits in the world as it is, and therefore have a strong incentive not tchange it. They are the one's who are presented with the true choice - either to give up their profits and their power to give the planet and people a chance to survive. Or to use their power to make as big profits as possible until the bubble bursts.

It is likely that the very same people who would oppose to any stricter regulations of co2 emissions would also be the ones to protest against stricter housing norms. Thus, creating sustainable societies in tornado-struck areas, and addressing co2 emissions demands the same thing. That some kind of democratic movement curbs the power of capital owners and dares to ignore how their bottom line is affected. I don't expect to read that on Dot Earth, though...

Finally, lets look at the question Revkin began with - is it irresponsible to write about lethal storms without mentioning climate change? My response would be that it is irresponsible not to mention the need to reduce inherent and avoidable human vulnerability to tornadoes in the crowding South, particularly in low-income regions with flimsy housing.

Why not mention both? Is it so hard to think that tornadoes are bad and they will get worse, so we must make sure that people have decent housing? Maybe because accepting the notion that has grown stronger among environmentalists - that climate change is happening now, would require for Revkin to leave his conviction that limiting emissions of greenhouse gases is a long-term challenge. Unfortunately it might already be too late, and if it is not, it is a more pressing issue than rebuilding Alabama. As if that wasn't pressing enough.

Some people get it, though... Like Steve Earl.

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