Friday, September 02, 2005

Blaming Bush for Katrina

“The atmosphere is the prototypical chaotic nonlinear system. This was shown by the simplest atmospheric model, devised by [Edward] Lorenz over 20 years ago, the starting point for modern mathematical studies of such systems. Because the atmosphere is chaotic, atmospheric models are sensitive to small variations in initial conditions and possess an inherent growth of error. These properties impose a theoretical limit on the range of deterministic predictions of large-scale flow patterns of about two weeks.”

— National Academy of Sciences, Panel on Weather
Prediction Technologies, Research Briefings 1985

Even in the first 48 hours after Katrina first touched the Gulf Coast, a number of journalists have taken Bush and his administration to task for alleged failures in preparation and execution of relief efforts, as though the federal government should have done a head count and map of the people who decided to stay in New Orleans. As the summer progressed, climatologists predicted this season might generate unusually severe hurricanes. That has in turn prompted supporters of the dead Kyoto treaty to blame Bush for almost any bad thing that happens.

There is a chain of connected beliefs held by many folks who call themselves progressive liberals: that 1) Global Warming has been proven to exist as a climatic trend; 2) It results from human — and more specifically, Republican/Capitalist — modern industrial activity, not from naturally-occurring phenomena; 3) George Bush and his cronies are willfully allowing it to occur because they are greedy bastards; 4) the Kyoto accords would actually have accomplished anything to slow, halt, or reverse the trend.

Global Warming even if it has been demonstrated, cannot be shown to be a significant deviation from long-period climatic cycles found in the fossil/polar ice record. People, the sun is a variable star! The variation of its energy output is calculated to be as much as one tenth of a percent in just the 22-year sunspot cycle. This may seem small, but the sun’s irradiance of the earth is vast compared to any human activity. In addition, observations indicate a long-term increase in the sun’s output since the so-called “little Ice Age” between 1650 and 1700. Along with titanic volcanic eruptions, the vagaries of El Niño, and other natural events, this trend dwarfs the most appalling estimates of anthropogenic causes for warming, such as CO2 resulting from industrialization or the methane burps of half a billion cows.

So in that catechism, the case for Global Warming is equivocal at best. A slight increase in global temperature may be factual, but we haven’t had the observational capacity nor a baseline against which to compare, to know whether it is significant. It’s like the Ozone Hole: We didn’t even become aware of it until we had satellites and spacecraft orbiting above the atmosphere. How do we know it hasn’t been there all along? As recently as 1980 the Global Weather Experiment was one of the very first international attempts by over 100 participating nations to monitor the weather in sufficient detail to begin predicting global weather patterns. And it was only intended to test and explore means of data gathering. Modern satellite coverage notwithstanding, we still have only relatively sparse data-monitoring capability, with gaps as great as hundreds of kilometers between many permanent weather gauges. As of 2003— according to World Weather Watch ( a system of commercial sea-going ships and aircraft voluntarily supplement the data transmissions of automatic drifting buoys and balloon-borne sensors, so that over a hundred thousand data points are available for weather calculations (and records) daily.

That’s a bunch, but it’s a big planet, with an immense un-studied climate history. We’re only just achieving a comprehensive survey ability now. With climatology just maturing, regional and local variations in patterns will continue to mask larger-scale trends for a very long time. Using the generally-accepted climate models, monitoring systems now in place suffice for general weather prediction out to half the theoretical limit of two weeks. In the absence of both a baseline and a sufficiently detailed monitoring capability we have only conjecture and theory and reckoning based on a lot of educated but unverifiable assumptions. Respected scientists slag each other off in the popular press, and disagree politely but firmly in their refereed academic journals.

In other words, all politics aside, the observations, science and logic so far available do not in any immediately useful way detail the mechanisms and magnitude of warming. They are not sufficiently developed to predict its persistence, or cure. It requires a faith bordering on the delusional to insist that we accept the rest of the articles of the logic chain I paraphrased at the beginning. The Kyoto accords were rejected not just by Bush. Ninety-five United States Senators, including Democratic icon Theodore Kennedy, voted against the proposed treaty before Vice-president Gore made the grand gesture of signing the thing. President Clinton did not even bother sending it to the Senate for a ratification vote.

None of this stops pissed-off liberals from claiming that because he continues to oppose the Kyoto accords, Bush caused: a) Katrina, b) Katrina’s unusual intensity, c) Katrina’s anomalous track, d) the poverty and lack of preparedness or simple self-preservation by a huge part of New Orleans’ population, e) inadequate response by all levels of government in the aftermath.

This is a clear example of either massive dumbness, or crass political opportunism.

Why am I surprised? I’ve sat through countless harangues against nuclear power by ignoramuses who couldn’t tell a proton from a crouton. I expect better from people pretending to defend our schools against the intrusion of theories like creationism and intelligent design. But it seems that as more frustrated they are at their own impotence, so more frenzied and irrational they become.


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1:02 AM  

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