05 September 2005

Cindy Sheehan and Bush's environmental policy

Cindy Sheehan decided, in a message posted over on the After Downing Street blog, to take a swing at Bush over the situation in Louisiana:

Well, George and I are leaving Crawford today. George is finished playing golf and telling his fables in San Diego, so he will be heading to Louisiana to see the devastation that his environmental policies and his killing policies have caused. Recovery would be easier and much quicker if almost ½ of the three states involved National Guard were not in Iraq. All of the National Guard's equipment is in Iraq also. Plus, with the 2 billion dollars a week that the private contractors are siphoning from our treasury, how are we going to pay for helping our own citizens in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama? And, should I dare say "global warming?" and be branded as a "conspiracy theorist" on top of everything else the reich-wingers say about me.
I don't disagree with everything in this paragraph. I think it is true that things would have been easier in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama if so many of their National Guard troops weren't deployed. It is also true that she and Bush left Crawford, and that Bush, several days after the disaster started, finally concluded his vacation. And it is true that he went to Louisiana. Those few points aside, that paragraph is packed with inaccuracies and errors.

Some of the points are related to Iraq, and I don't intend to spend too much time on them. It is worth pointing out that not all of the National Guard's equipment is in Iraq - the units that deployed brought their equipment, but the units left behind have equipment, too. It is also worth mentioning that, although the cash flowing into the Iraqi black hole is significant, there is still money to spend at home - and there would be more if not for the tax cuts.

Her choice of descriptive language also leaves something to be desired. Comparing one's opponents to the Nazi's does justice to neither. It minimizes the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis, and it demonizes the opponents while doing nothing to encourage reasonable discourse. This particular cheap shot doesn't even have the virtue of being funny or clever - on a scale of witty insults that runs from Michael liberalismm is a mental disease" Savage to Winston "in the morning I shall be sober" Churchill, "reich-wingers" barely breaks the Bill O'Reilly mark. I could go on, but Orac handles this type of comment better than I possibly could.

As far as I'm concerned, those comments, poorly thought out as they were, are really the side show. The main event for me is Sheehan's massive misunderstanding of environmental science and policy. Sheehan seems to want to put as much of the blame as possible on Bush. Picking out a single scapegoat may be satisfying, but it is wrong.

The environment, the impacts that the human species has on the environment, and the effects of our impacts are all very complex issues. Like most complex issues, there is no single cause. As is frequently the case in real-world situations, events may have more than one cause, and the exact contribution of each factor can be very difficult to pin down. Hurricanes are certainly complex, and the causes of hurricanes are equally complex. Many things, including global warming, may have gone into making this storm as bad as it was. Blaming Bush's environmental policies is irresponsible, not to mention wrong.

It is far from clear whether or not global warming played a role in making this hurricane as strong as it was. The warmer-than-normal waters of the Gulf of Mexico were certainly responsible, but how much of that was caused by global warming and how much of that was simply the result of a warmer-than-normal year is much more difficult to say. Remember, half of all years will be warmer than average. A certain small percentage of them will be significantly warmer than average. That's just the nature of how we define "average", and the nature of the bell curve. It is theoretically possible that the Gulf temperatures would have been almost as warm without any greenhouse warming.

But let's assume that greenhouse-gas caused global warming is entirely responsible for the elevated temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico. It's still not all Bush's fault. We have been pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhousegasess into the atmosphere for a long time now. We've known about the possible effects for a long time. ("We" does not just refer to the United States, but to the world.) No matter what we do, it will take a long time to undo what has already happened. If Bush had managed to drop the US emissions of CO2 to zero during the second year of his administration, atmospheric levels would still be high, and the sea surface temperatures in the Gulf may well have been just as high.

Now, please don't take this the wrong way. I am not a climate change "skeptic". I think that the evidence for global warming is real, and very, very credible. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, we do release large quantities of it into the air as the result of burning fossil fuel, atmospheric levels of CO2 have shown a steady increase over the last few decades, and temperatures do appear to be rising. As a result of these increased temperatures, we can expect increased numbers of hurricanes overall, and increased hurricane strength overall. Those are general trends, they are things that we need to keep in mind, and they are certainly worth discussing in light of recent events. There is a large gap, however, between those statements and saying that global warming was responsible for this hurricane.

Wetlands loss is another issue that was involved in the damage from this hurricane. Wetlands have the ability to effectively "soak up" some of a storm surge, and having wetlands between you and the ocean can reduce the risk of damage from a storm surge (or tsunami). It is true that there has been a great deal of wetlands loss in the Mississippi Delta, and that these wetlands could have helped mitigate some of the damage. Here, again, we cannot simply blame Bush for the damage. Like global warming, this is a problem that has been decades in the making, and it is a problem that has many contributing causes. As was the case with global warming, I doubt that Bush could have reversed enough of the damage to make a difference if he had tried.

I am not saying these things in defense of the president's environmental record. Bush's record on the environment is absolutely atrocious. He certainly has not helped with either global warming or wetlands management. He seems, throughout his presidency, to have done his absolute best to gut what limited environmental protections we have. Despite all of this, we simply cannot say with any reasonable degree of sympathy whether or not his policies were a major contributing factor in this disaster, and if they were, to what degree. It is certain that his environmental policy did not help. It is possible, if not likely, that it hurt. But it is irresponsible and indefensible to claim that they were the cause.

This disaster has caused enormous loss of life, enormous suffering, and enormous damage. It has revealed and is revealing fundamental flaws in the way that we, as a nation, deal with these type of disasters. If we are to have any hope at fixing these problems, it is going to take a national discourse and a national debate on quite a number of details. This discourse will need to be as bipartisan as possible.

Please note that I am not trying to say that we shouldn't assess blame. We should, we must, and we undoubtedly will. I am also not trying to say that this isn't the time for criticism. It is - most mistakes can be fixed easier the sooner that they are noticed. What I am saying is this: this is a national disaster that we have handled abysmally. Mistakes seem to have been made at virtually every possible level, and these mistakes need to be addressed. Addressing them should take place in as careful and reasonable a manner as possible. Hurling unsupportable accusations and insults, particularly when they are poorly supported by the facts, does absolutely nothing to help in this process.
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