Natural Calamity and Human Folly

Below, I have pasted in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) press release from nearly a month ago. It reports the findings of MIT meteorologist Kerry Emmanuel, who learned that hurricanes have been becoming considerably more destructive since the 1970s, thanks in part to global warming.

Another factor that will increase hurricanes’ devastating impact on human beings, Emmanuel found, is increasing human settlement in and around coastal regions.

As the brilliant left writer Mike Davis notes in books likes Ecology of Fear and Late Victorian Holocausts, much of what corporate-neoliberal ideology and media-framing potrays as pure natural incident is actually the product of dialectical interaction between natural ecology and human inequality. Human tragedies resulting from what we have been conditioned to call “natural disasters” are significantly “socially constructed.” They are socially produced within the context of class, related hiearchies, and their various paralyzing mystifications.

In the case of recent history intensified hurricanes, the ceaseless, profit-driven generation of excess atmospheric carbon warms the climate, which warms the oceans, which increases the intensity of violent ocean storms. The damage from those storms falls with special impact on people in coastal, low-lying areas opened to expanded settlement by profit-driven real estate developers and collateral pro-”growth” agents of sprawl.

Continuing with the relevance of unequal, not-so “natural” social forces, it is poor people who are least able to distance themselves from storm surge, flooding, wind-damage, and the rest.

Tonight the evening news showed tens of thousands of people seeking shelter in New Orleans’ Superdome from tropical storm Katrina, which may (my local weatherman said) be the most intense hurricane ever to hit North America. I didn’t see a single non-black individual in the various news images of these huddles masses. New Orleans is home, of course, to a large and very disproportionately impoverished population of color, which is specially challenged in its ability to protect itself from a not-so purely “natural” calamity rooted partly in corporate arrogance and related human ecological folly.

Here’s the press release:

Hurricanes growing fiercer with global warming
Elizabeth A. Thomson, News Office
July 31, 2005

Hurricanes have grown significantly more powerful and destructive over the last three decades due in part to global warming, says an MIT professor who warns that this trend could continue.

“My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in [hurricanes'] destructive potential, and–taking into account an increasing coastal population–a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century,” reports Kerry Emanuel in a paper appearing in the July 31 online edition of the journal Nature.

Emanuel is a professor of meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Theories and computer simulations of climate indicate that warming should generate an increase in storm intensity. In other words, they should hit harder, produce higher winds and last longer.

To explore that premise, Emanuel analyzed records of tropical cyclones–commonly called hurricanes or typhoons–since the middle of the 20th century. He found that the amount of energy released in these events in both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific oceans has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. Both the duration of the cyclones and the largest wind speeds they produce have increased by about 50 percent over the past 50 years.

He further reports that these increases in storm intensity are mirrored by increases in the average temperature at the surface of the tropical oceans, suggesting that this warming–some of which can be ascribed to global warming–is responsible for the greater power of the cyclones.

According to Jay Fein, director of the National Science Foundation’s climate dynamics program, which funded the research, Emanuel’s work “has resulted in an important measure of the potential impact of hurricanes on social, economic and ecological systems. It’s an innovative application of a theoretical concept, and has produced a new analysis of hurricanes’ strength and destructive potential.”

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