Katrina and the Environment

The scale of the Gulf Coast disaster is not “natural” at all; it is man-made.

As we’ve said, underfunding of the prevention system helped cause the floods. Also, the evacuation process that left tens of thousands stranded, along with the “too little, too late” federal aid, helped intensify the outcome of the hurricane. Faulty housing in poor and working-class areas was swept away by Katrina, while sturdy oil refineries were relatively unharmed. But another key reason for the scale of the disaster is the crisis of the global environment.

The Bush Administration, until recently, has staunchly denied that global warming exists, but (once again) they’re wrong. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that not only does global warming exist but that it is also causing important environmental problems. Over 2,500 top climate scientists from over 100 countries participated in this examination of changes in weather. Reputable national scientific academies from country after country have explicitly endorsed the IPCC study.

The IPCC study on global warming concluded that the average temperature on the Earth’s surface has risen by more than one degree over the past 100 years. They also concluded that “most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”

Doesn’t sound like much of a change, right? Well, temperatures only 5-9¡F cooler than those today prevailed at the end of the last ice age, in which the northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice. A little change can make a big difference.

Over the last 20 years, we have seen nine of the ten hottest years in recorded history. Most serious scientists agree that this is no coincidence, and if the course of humanity is not reversed then this trend is likely to continue.

The burning of fossil fuels like oil and gasoline traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and contributes to rising temperatures. Some environmentalists blame the ordinary consumer for using too many fossil fuels. However, it’s hard for many people to get to their jobs without cars. Oil and gas are the main available ways to keep a house warm. We have to survive, and the corporations give us few options to get by.

The overuse of fossil fuels is due to the fact that those sources of energy are the most profitable for big business. The electric car engine was invented around the same time as the gas engine, but it was determined by the car and gas companies that their industries would be more profitable (and more costly to the consumer) with gas engines. Alternative sources of energy, like solar, hydro, wind, etc., are available, but corporations don’t want to invest money into extensive research when they have to worry about immediate profits.

Also, big business is often opposed to the establishment or expansion of public transportation. A good example is in Los Angeles, where the car companies actually bought out the public transportation system in order to shut it down.

The market economy is driven by short-term profits, and potential future effects on the environment along with immediate effects for workers and consumers don’t matter much to corporations, as long as nobody gets in the way of them making big shareholders happy with huge profits.

So, many will say, “OK, global warming might be happening, and it might be the corporations’ fault, but what does that have to do with a hurricane?” Well, it quite possibly has a lot to do with hurricanes and other “natural” disasters.

The IPCC study concluded that global warming has caused “a rise in the global average sea level” and “increased frequency of extreme precipitation events in some areas of the world.” In other words, it’s gonna rain and it’s gonna flood. Hurricanes are “extreme precipitation events” and the Gulf Coast is one of those “areas of the world” that they were talking about. Oh, and rising water levels would not only increase flooding from a hurricane; they also cause increased severity of tsunamis.

In addition to global warming and rising water levels, other environmental factors contributed to the Katrina disaster. A recent USA Today article stated, “Scientists say there is no doubt that natural features can blunt a storm’s power. Wetlands suck up surging waters. Barrier islands absorb some of the force of the wind and waves.”

Unfortunately, those marshes and wetlands were mostly destroyed by developers. Of course, socialists are not opposed to development. We stand for the development of public transportation, decent affordable housing, hospitals, schools, and other social needs. However, when we can choose between development of suburbs or the natural protection from disaster for hundreds of thousands of people, we’ll choose the latter. The anarchy of the market always chooses profits over people.

The barrier islands have been developed as well. In addition, the islands have been shrinking in size due to, you guessed it, rising water levels. For instance, the Chandeleur islands are eroding at a rate of 33 feet per year on one side. Many scientists have referred to these islands as “a natural defense” against hurricanes; they were practically gone when Katrina hit.

In addition, Louisiana had been sinking, with parts going further below sea level in the past few years. The recent USA Today article stated, “‘sinking is… caused by oil and gas production, which sucks fossil fuels and water out of underground reservoirs,’ says Bob Morton of the U.S. Geological Survey.” Again we see the devastating effects of the corporations’ narrow reliance on fossil fuels.

The disaster on the Gulf Coast was not only caused in many ways by environmental destruction, but also the tragedy itself will have environmental consequences for years to come.

The U.S. Government’s Environmental Protection Agency recently stated that the environmental cleanup following Katrina will have to be “the largest public works program in the history of the United States.” They have calculated that it may take ten years or longer to clean up the affected areas.

In search of a short-term solution, floodwater infected with raw sewage and dead bodies has been pumped into the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. This will make the downstream water undrinkable, unfishable, and useless for bathing or swimming.

Also, raw sewage and rotting corpses can cause the prevalence of infectious bacteria and deadly diseases in a region. We are only beginning to understand the environmental implications of this tragedy.

We need a massive cleanup and reconstruction public works program using union labor paid a living wage. This program should hire the refugees and rapidly train them with the necessary skills.

Instead of the environmental, economic, and social anarchy of capitalism, we need a system with a planned economy that is democratically run by working people for the benefit of all.

September 27, 2005