When the levee breaks

Ian Christie
29 August 2007

The drowning of New Orleans is a disaster that will scar bodies, minds and landscape for many years to come. Like the Asian tsunami of December 2004, it has transfixed the attention of people all over the world. And like the tsunami, it seems to be a portent for those hundreds of millions who live on the shorelines of the Earth. It could be that the “Big Easy” is the first of the world’s cities to be wrecked by man-made climate change.

openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change addresses the science, energy policy, environmental impacts and human experience of this major global issue.

It includes contributions from Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben, Fred Pearce, Camilla Toulmin, David King, Jim Di Peso, and a host of others. Caspar Henderson’s “debate guide” is a good overview

Whether or not climate change is a key factor, the magnitude of the two disasters is such that they might just be what it takes to break down the mental “levees” that have prevented leading politicians from facing up to the risks from climate change. In particular, New Orleans could be a decisive symbol of unsustainable hubris: built below sea level, next to a “dead zone” of nitrate pollution from the Mississippi river, and looking out on to a seascape of wrecked oil rigs. Heedless over-development of wetlands, reliance on fossil fuels from risky places, diffuse pollution on a vast scale – all the United States’s (and many others’) ecological sins and blindspots are on display.

A coastal world at risk

The hurricane system in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico may not yet be directly affected by global warming – there is plenty of evidence for half-century cycles of activity that account for the special severity of recent storms. But models of climate change show that warming will probably lead to more severe and frequent storms along with sea-level rise. The tsunami highlighted the vulnerability of big cities and commercial developments that have grown on the coastlines of south Asia and have removed the natural sea defences provided by mangrove swamps. The New Orleans catastrophe provides warning of what to expect on a far wider scale if climate change proves to be as serious as most climate scientists now fear.

The bulk of the world’s population lives on or near coasts. The largest cities tend to be at the mouth of big rivers and close to sea level. This presents major risks even for those cities not in the line of fire from hurricanes or tsunamis induced by earthquakes. Sea-level rise poses mounting dangers to great cities such as Venice (notoriously vulnerable to flood and decay, and human loss) and Shanghai (which is beginning to sink into its foundations). Development in heavily populated deltas, such as extraction of fresh water, leads to land sinking at a faster rate than sea-level rise.

No less threatening than storm surges and the breakdown of sea defences, is the insidious risk of salt intrusion into water tables. As urban populations demand more fresh water and global warming alters rainfall patterns, so water tables will sink and salt water will invade the aquifers on which cities depend. Dependence on groundwater is all the greater given the high level of pollution in big cities’ rivers and lakes, so the damage done by salt intrusion over the long term could be fatal to large areas of many cities. Salt water has already penetrated 5km below Manila as its water table falls.

So the slow-developing threat is potentially as bad as the sudden calamity. But the immediate costs from loss of life, property and insurance risk are much clearer when extreme events hit the shore. The destruction of the big coastal disasters of the past few years must concentrate minds and the lessons to be learned must surely now lead to urgent precautionary action around the world: first, to ensure plans are in place for emergency action; second, to adapt to expected risks; and third, to accelerate action to reduce greenhouse emissions on a far greater scale than achieved so far.

Will it happen? The tsunami did not prove to be a catalyst for greater urgency and commitment on climate action from the G8 leaders in July 2005. It was a disaster produced by tectonic plates, not carbon dioxide; it was far away from the west, for all the vivid TV footage and the huge public response; it was an awesome act of God or nature, which did not seem to imply a need to rethink policy in radical ways, except in funding better remote warning systems. The fact that it showed what vast damage could be done by more severe storms in coastal areas did not resonate with the leaders of the rich world.

Ian Christie’s articles on openDemocracy include:

“Three visions of politics: Europe in the millennial world” (May 2002)

“Motorway culture and its discontents” (May 2002)

“What Europe? Which century? Whose project?” (April 2003)

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A new political landscape?

New Orleans could change that. Here the TV images are even more powerful, coming as they do from the heart of the USA. And fierce debate over the relief effort, the stranding of poor blacks in danger and squalor in the city centre, and the maintenance of the levees, has begun to make connections between the specific case of New Orleans and the wider politics and culture of the USA and the rich world. This is clear in the heartsearching the hurricane has prompted about racial division in American cities. The next connection to be made is with global warming and the urgent need to adapt – and also to reduce risk by cutting carbon emissions fast.

New Orleans could become the third front on which George W Bush is vulnerable on the climate issue. Already states on the northeast coast have combined to bypass the federal government in pledging to meet Kyoto emission reduction targets. On the west coast, the California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is breaking ranks with his fellow-Republican president on energy and climate policy, and cities across the USA are signing up to carbon emission cuts.

Hurricane Katrina has opened up a southern front, showing the huge risks to coastal settlements in a destabilised climate, and underlining the irrationality of fossil fuel dependence. The smashed oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico remind us of the costs of oil – how often it is to be found in risky places, and how much risk we face by using it.

The climate debate has been stymied for years now by a failure of will, imagination and interest on the part of political leaders, above all in the USA. The evidence grows, and the scientific models get ever more alarming, but the flood of data and scenarios fails to break through the psychological and ideological barriers protecting the complacent culture of the G8 and the White House.

The climate issue has lacked a potent symbol and exemplary warning that could capture the political imagination of the rich world. Perhaps we have it now. It will be no consolation to the wretched residents of New Orleans to be the catalyst of such change, but if any good is to come from the drowning of their city, it should be action to prevent millions more sharing their ordeal in decades to come.

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