In 1999, Hurricane Mitch, which had lost most of its kick by the time it reached Honduras, still killed more than 10,000 people as a result of intense flooding, making it the biggest storm-related disaster in Central American history.
year later, 25,000 people died in Venezuelan rainstorms, the
greatest such disaster in South America, ever. Similar historic
flooding has occurred recently in Bangladesh, China, India and
These catastrophes, along with the Western
United States’ six-year drought and intense fires, are the
type of extreme weather events predicted by climate change models.
And yet America, in an almost pathological resistance to
predictions of doom, is doing nothing to address the problem.
Americans have a long history of complacency. While we
are one of the most innovative and optimistic societies on the
planet -- and perhaps because we are -- we abhor, and often ignore,
advance warnings, putting our faith instead in our unique ability
to problem-solve at the last minute.
The Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor, it turns out, was not much of a surprise. Nor,
ultimately, was the space shuttle Challenger explosion: engineers
had warned about the faulty O ring the very morning of the
disaster. Before Sept. 11, this country was well aware of Al
But we needed these disasters to spark us
into action. It took Ohio's Cuyahoga River catching fire to spark
the Clean Water Act. It took Love Canal to create federal Superfund
Jeffrey Goldberg, in the Feb. 10 New Yorker,
cites national-security expert Thomas Schelling's post-Pearl Harbor
theory that America suffers from a "poverty of expectations. There
is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the
improbable," Schelling said. "The contingency we have not
considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought
improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."
The Bush administration argues that it must confront the
danger posed by Saddam Hussein, though its critics say the United
States presents a "sky is falling" scenario. This insistence on
taking action against a threat that is not universally accepted
makes it even more surprising that the administration remains
passive about climate change.
Beyond dropping out of the
Kyoto protocol, the government continues to insist on the need for
more research on climate change, even though scientific consensus
has been achieved. Instead of targeting the problem as precisely as
if it were an Iraqi bio-weapons lab, the administration has
proposed "environmental" programs, such as the call for fuel-cell
cars, that will postpone needed changes in vehicle fuel-efficiency
standards conveniently beyond the current administration.
Confidence in hydrogen as a panacea reflects American ironclad
confidence in its ingenuity, and technology's ability to come to
the rescue at the eleventh hour.
We haven't always turned
a blind eye to doom-and-gloom warnings, but ironically, the last
time we did act only increased complacency. Y2K was a good example.
Our response to that predicted crisis included concerted action and
investment by businesses and government well in advance of the
problem-prevented disaster. That nothing happened when the calendar
turned to the year 2,000 reinforced the American sense that "things
will be OK -- just relax."
Other recent successes in
response to predicted catastrophic events have reinforced our
willingness to wait for crisis before acting. A good example is the
U.S.-- and world's-response to what was arguably the first Sept. 11
of the environment -- the discovery of a gaping ozone hole over the
Concern about the damaging effects of
chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) had been around since the early 1970s,
but it took the shock of the ozone hole to spark the Montreal
Protocol of 1987, one of the great environmental achievements of
our time. The protocol united the globe in a ban on CFCs, and
effectively solved a potentially catastrophic problem.
Climate change, unfortunately, will not be so easily remedied. Even
if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, carbon dioxide
concentrations in the atmosphere would continue to increase. By the
time there is an American crisis, it may well be too late.
So what will it take? At $5 billion, 2001's tropical
storm Allison was the costliest in United States history. But it
only caused 22 deaths. Imagine 25,000 dead from flooding damage, in
say, California or Texas, instead of Venezuela. Will this be what
it takes to rouse America to action? Perhaps. But surely that sort
of thing couldn't happen here.