Deadly storms, deadly addiction

Feature story - 23 September, 2005
By now we all know the science: no single hurricane can be blamed on climate change, in the same way that no single cigarette can be blamed for a cancer death. But as devastating as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may be, their wrath is nothing compared to the devastation that climate change will wreak on our planet if governments fail to address our world's oil addiction.

Nature's revenge on the oil industry? A refinery in Lousiana destroyed by 150 mph (240 kph) winds.

The US alone is responsible for a quarter of the world'scarbon dioxide emissions.  If we carry the smoking metaphorforward, the entire world is suffering from the passive smoke ofAmerica's fossil fuel habit, and the symptoms of cancer are comingsoon, if they're not already here.

The American peopleare also suffering from their government's failure to take urgent stepsto curb global warming. Katrina and Rita are stark reminders of thefact that the American taxpayer is being asked to cover the cost of theBush administration's inaction on oil dependency not only at the petrolpump, but in uninsured liabilities for extreme-weather related damagesas well.

For information on how to help the victims of Katrina and Rita, check out Any contribution (even 10 minutes to make some phone calls) can help.

To find out more about how you can personally help the fight against climate change, visit our Take Action page.

Mostclimate models and theory predict an increase in intensity of tropicalstorms as sea surface temperatures increase. There are a number offactors involved, but higher ocean temperatures strengthenhurricanes. 

The frequency of Category 4 and 5hurricanes worldwide has nearly doubled over the past 35 years, eventhough the total number of hurricanes, including weaker ones, hasdropped since the 1990s. Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it hitland.  Rita was a Category 5 on the 22nd of September.

=""=""> Noone disputes that we are currently experiencing an increase in tropicalstorm intensity. No one disputes that there are multi-decadal cycles ofpeaks and troughs in storm activity. The debate about the link withclimate change continues, but two recent papers make a compelling caselinking the current peak with climate change. One focuses on the changes in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical cyclones, while the other charts their increasing destructiveness over the past 30 years.

Thereis no lack of evidence that human-induced climate change is underway.The impacts are being felt from Alaska to Florida to sub-SaharanAfrica, India, China and the melting Russian tundra. In the fourweeks that the world's press has put a magnifying glass on Katrina andRita, typhoons in Asia and floods in Europe and India have left ruinand death in their wake. In a warming world, more storms and moredestructive storms like Rita and Katrina are in our future, but so areincreased outbreaks of malaria, the prospect of massive crop failures,desertification, and sea level rise.

In the short and medium term, here's what we can expect: 

  • Sealevel rise due to melting glaciers and ice caps and the thermalexpansion of the oceans as global temperature increases  
  • TheEuropean summer temperatures which killed more than 30,000 people inthe heat wave of 2003 will be 'average' summer temperatures beforemid-century.
  • Massive releases of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost and dying forests.   
  • Ahigh risk of more extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughtsand floods. Already, the global incidence of drought has doubled overthe past 30 years.   
  • Severe impacts on aregional level. For example, in Europe, river flooding will increaseover much of the continent, and in coastal areas the risk of flooding,erosion and wetland loss will increase substantially.   
  • Natural systems, including glaciers, coral reefs, mangroves,arctic ecosystems, alpine ecosystems, boreal forests, tropical forests,prairie wetlands and native grasslands, will be severelythreatened.   
  • An increase in existing risks of species extinction and biodiversity loss.   
  • Thegreatest impacts will be on the poorer countries least able to protectthemselves from rising sea levels, spread of disease and declines inagricultural production in the developing countries of Africa, Asia andthe Pacific.

Longer term catastrophic effects if warming continues:   

  • Greenlandand Antarctic ice sheet melting. Unless checked, warming from emissionsmay trigger the irreversible meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet in thecoming decades, which would add up to seven meters of sea-level rise,over some centuries; there is new evidence that the rate of icedischarge from parts of the Antarctic mean that it is also at risk ofmeltdown.   
  • The Atlantic Gulf Stream currentslowing, shifting or shutting down, having dramatic effects in Europe,and disrupting the global ocean circulation system;   
  • Catastrophic releases of methane from the oceans leading to rapid increases in methane in the atmosphere and consequent warming.

Whileeveryone on the planet is at risk from the changes that will occur fromglobal warming, impacts are felt more severely by the most vulnerablein any society, including the sick, aged and poor. 

And the developing world will suffer far more than those who can afford to subsidize rebuilding.

Ifthe evacuation of Louisiana and Texas looked difficult, imagine theentire country of Bangladesh having to flee rising waters intoPakistan. Imagine the island nations of the Pacific having tofind new homes. 

"Rita and Katrina are merelywarnings of what our world will look like if we fail to treat climatechange as the emergency it is.  They're the calm beforethe storm, and unless the US government wakes up to the danger andresponds, we'll need an evacuation plan for planet Earth," saidGreenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold.


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