Monday, September 26, 2005

A Warm September

It's been a warm September in southeast Kansas. But finally, as the month gives way to October, cooler temperatures are in the forecast. It's about time.

In Kansas it's not unheard of for summer to hang tenaciously on well into September. Even so, highs in the mid 90's all month have raised concerns that we'd be skipping fall this year.

Could this September be another piece of circumstantial evidence that global warming is now occurring? Maybe. While there's so much natural variation in climate that no single event makes the case, suffering through the past month certainly suggests how things might be in Septembers yet to come.

The preponderance of evidence for global warming is compelling. The 1990's was the hottest decade ever recorded. Glaciers are receding dramatically worldwide. The poles are thawing at a stunning rate. (The high arctic is warming much more rapidly than the rest of the planet, with sobering implications that several resulting feedback mechanisms will speed warming even more.)

And as we weary of a warm September, it's worth repeating that in the 1980's a NASA scientist demonstrated that global warming is being manifested by a shift in the onset of the seasons. Spring now comes a week earlier than it used to. Is fall similarly being delayed?

Even anecdotal evidence suggests that winters aren't what they used to be. For example, armadillos are now a common roadkill constituent around here. They used to be much more rare, perhaps completely absent. Armadillos don't tolerate hard winters. Does their current prevalence indicate that moderate winters are allowing them to migrate farther north from their previous range?

As we clean up from Katrina and Rita, we can't help but recall that climate models have long predicted that warmer oceans will fuel more powerful hurricanes. Now comes the news that scientists have shown that the severity of hurricanes worldwide has increased over the past couple of decades. And this is just the beginning, because global temperatures are projected to rise a lot more in the coming century. The resulting increase in sea levels, plus the greater ferocity of storms, will constitute a devastating one-two punch at low lying coastal areas.

When President George W. Bush walked away from the Kyoto agreement near the beginning of his first term, his primary reason for doing so was that taking action against global warming would be too big a burden to the U.S. economy. With projections of $200-300 billion to rebuild after Katrina, we are reminded that even in a purely economic sense (which is not the only sense that matters) doing nothing has its costs too.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Clarification: The Negative Press

A posted anonymous comment, and a personal conversation with a friend, have led me to suspect that not everybody got the point of my post entitled The Negative Press. I therefore offer this clarification.

The piece was satire!

In it I sarcastically mock those who might be inclined to criticize the press for relentlessly reporting the litany horrors that occur daily in Iraq.

I don't hear it so much now, but earlier in the war a common complaint was that the press concentrated too much on the negative aspects of our military effort while giving short shrift to the uplifting, feel good stories such as the rebuilding of schools and hospitals.

By now, however, few can doubt that the violence and chaos gripping Iraq almost two and a half years after the invasion are the story. (Two hundred Iraqis died in a flurry of more than a dozen bombings on Wednesday. Two hundred! NPR's Anne Garrels, reporting on the mayhem, said that "many Iraqis seemed on the verge of tears, feeling they're being swept into a civil war they don't want.")

If we're going to continue this Iraq adventure, we need to do it with eyes wide open and an attentive American public. We must not blot out the truth with sappy fluff stories or willful denial in the name of a shallow, mindless patriotism. The business of the press is to tell it like it is, not to be cheerleaders or mouthpieces for our government. Our democracy depends upon it.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 03, 2005

What, Exactly, is "Homeland Security"?

The federal government's hurricane Katrina debacle begs the question of what exactly we mean by "homeland security."

In September of 2001, a band of suicidal fanatics caught the nation by surprise and drove airplanes into two tall buildings. The calamity was horrific but nevertheless relatively contained. That event has been used to justify and excuse an absurd string of subsequent "responses" in the name of homeland security.

In August of 2005, a hurricane that we knew was coming devastated the Gulf Coast, and although we had made preparations we were not prepared. The Katrina death toll will no doubt exceed 911; the economic losses will be greater as well. How much of this loss of life, property, and economic output should we have been able to prevent or mitigate?

Critics of the Bush administration have long complained that this government has made us less, not more, secure. It has done so in countless ways.

Bush's tax cuts for the rich reveal a philosophy of government which willingly discounts the prospects of the poor and powerless. As we can now plainly see, it is precisely those most stung in their everyday lives by government cutbacks who have the highest vulnerability to catastrophic events such as the flooding of New Orleans.

The tax cuts, and resulting budget deficits, have also guaranteed that fewer resources will be available for necessary infrastructure that is needed to secure the homeland. The chronically underfunded levee, canal, and pumping system of New Orleans is just one example. It would be dishonest to say that but for Bush's tax cuts New Orleans would have been made safe in time for Katrina. But this crucial storm protection system, and the greater Army Corps of Engineers storm protection operations in its New Orleans district, have indisputably been on Bush's budget chopping block year after year--even while its deficiencies have been gamed, studied, and documented.

Resources are scarce under any circumstance, and the tax cuts have only made them more so. So have Bush's priorities. The dubious war in Iraq has cost this nation $4 billion per month for more than two years, with no end in sight. A comprehensive overhaul of the storm protection system for New Orleans--which we couldn't afford--would have cost $2.5 billion.

Never mind for the moment that the Iraq war is making us less secure for a host of geopolitical reasons; it is also necessarily draining resources that are needed at home. Bush's post-911 response to make America secure was to invade Iraq in a search for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, and in an attempt to root out a terrorist threat that was not present. Such misguided priorities go straight to the nation's bottom line, and force us to cut back in other vital areas.

But it gets worse. Although Bush and his administration vehemently deny that there is any shortage of National Guard troops for use in the Katrina aftermath, it is undeniable that one third of Louisiana's and Mississippi's National Guard forces are deployed in Iraq, as is fully one half of their equipment (including high-water trucks). And as other commentators have pointed out, a high proportion of those guardsmen overseas come from police forces at home, which constitutes a double deficit in this time of need. Bush's denials notwithstanding, it is hard to fathom how guardsmen now deployed in Iraq aren't needed here to protect their own communities.

"Homeland Security", then, in large measure comes down to the application of resources, judgment, and priorities. Is our well being and security no less threatened by "acts of God" than acts of evil?

Although we must work to understand and prepare to whatever extent practicable for threats originating outside our borders, we also need to maintain sensible perspective. We know beyond any doubt that hurricanes will strike and occasionally devastate our southern coastal regions. Being ready for that is surely part of "Homeland Security" too.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 02, 2005

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

As just about everybody with a television now knows, much of the city of New Orleans is desperately flooded in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The flooding commenced with breaks in the levee system holding back Lake Pontchartrain from the below sea level city. The city is being completely evacuated and may not be habitable for months.

Bush administration officials at the highest levels have said that we could not have anticipated a levee break. That is so emphatically not true that I don't believe they really meant to state it in those terms. What they really meant, or at least what they were thinking when they uttered those careless words, was probably more like: We thought the levees would hold, and the city would be ok, as long as we kept our fingers crossed. There was perhaps surprise in some circles when that didn't work.

Truth is, the weakness of the levees protecting New Orleans has been long known, studied, and reported. Nobody should have been surprised when they failed.

Maybe officials meant they'd have expected New Orleans to succumb to the storm surge of a direct hurricane hit, but were caught off guard when instead the city flooded after the hurricane--whose eye was well to the east--had already passed. Maybe they meant they were surprised that the failure came in a canal levee, not one directly exposed to the pounding waves of Lake Pontchartrain. Whatever.

No matter the spin, officials have long known that New Orleans was at great risk, and that it was just a matter of time before risk became reality. In national disaster planning studies, a direct hit on New Orleans by a major storm has long been at or near the top of scenarios for the most devastating national catastrophes.

An article in the New York Times reports that regional officials of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the levee system, have complained for years that the project to bring it up to higher standards has been chronically underfinanced.

Upgrades to the system have been long planned, but there has never been enough money to get the job done. Just as storm experts were predicting a particularly intense hurricane season this year, the New Orleans district of the Corps took a $71 million reduction in its storm protection budget. The Times article states that, since 2001, the Louisiana Congressional delegation has tried to obtain much more storm protection money than the Bush administration has been willing to deliver. Yet another example of your tax cuts at work.

A complete upgrade to protect the city from a Category 5 storm--the most severe--would have cost $2.5 billion. (And by the way, we spend that much in Iraq every two or three weeks.) Now, after the possibility of prevention has passed, the money taps will be opened to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved