Katrina and global warming

Yes, New Orleans is being flooded partly because people drive SUV’s. Deal with it.

Yes, it makes me queasy when people use natural disasters to grind their own political axes; sympathy for the victims and concern about what can be done to relieve their suffering ought to take precedence over ideological point-scoring.

On the other hand:

* Officials ought to be held accountable for bad decisions and sloppy execution, and disasters often reveal such misfeasance.

* Policies ought to be adapted in the light of experience, and disasters are good attention-focusing mechanisms.

* It’s hard to get people to change their behavior, and linking bad behavior to dramatic consequences is one way to do it.

Consider a smaller and more common disaster, the death of a small child in a house fire caused by his father’s having fallen asleep in bed, drunk, with a lit cigarette. Would it be vulgar for someone to say, the next day, either “We need to enforce the building code requiring sprinklers” or “It’s dangerous to smoke in bed, especially if you are also drinking” or even “The tobacco companies ought to be required to stop putting accelerants in cigarette paper; otherwise cigarettes would be self-extinghishing and wouldn’t cause house fires”? I don’t see why. Yes, the first response ought to be sorrow for the child’s death; but why shouldn’t the second be thoughts about how to prevent future deaths?

Or, to give another example, was it vulgar to say, with the wreckage of 9/11 still smoking, “Whoever did this will be made to pay”?

But the ethics of commentary is one topic; the science of weather and climate is another. Andrew Sullivan takes a casual swipe at the German Greens for linking the New Orleans disaster to global warming, “As if any serious expert believes this is in any way connected.”

Howzzat again? My understanding is that the climate-change models mostly predict greater tropical storm activity as a result of global warming, and a recent paper in Nature finds that over the past 30 years tropical storms “have been more intense and longer in duration, and have generated far more power, than computer models had predicted.” The author of that paper, an MIT professor who studies cyclone formation, surely ought to count as a “serious expert.”

There is still a reasonable case to be made that the economic costs of reducing the human contribution to global warming wouldn’t be worth the cost, or could better be spent on other goals, such as reducing extreme poverty. (Tom Schelling, having looked at the problem carefully, believes that, and while Schelling isn’t infallible I wouldn’t consider it prudent to bet on his being wrong.)

But the claims that the human contribution is non-existent or negligible, or that continued warming will have only minor consequences, or mostly benign ones, are simply no longer sustainable.

Global warming and other macro environmental disasters can be used to justify more extensive state regulation of economic activity. It’s natural for those who oppose such regulation to wish that global warming, and its ill effects, didn’t exist. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

Update The record seems clear: that broken levee allowing Lake Pontchartrain to pour into New Orleans was the result of Bush Administration (and Congressional) decisions to spend the money elsewhere or give it away as tax cuts, in the face of specific warnings about the likely result in the case of a big hurricane. Got to eliminate all that wasteful government spending, you know; it’s just a drag on the economy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com