Magazine article The World Today

The Year the Climate Changed: The G8 and the Katrina Effect

Magazine article The World Today

The Year the Climate Changed: The G8 and the Katrina Effect

Article excerpt

AMONG THE CASUALTIES OF hurricane Katrina - and floods in Europe - was one of the core assumptions of climate change sceptics: that rich industrialised countries would not be vulnerable to extreme weather. It is too early to know the exact repercussions, but nestled within a set of key political events, the map of climate change politics seems likely to emerge fundamentally recast.

From a climate change perspective, the importance of the hurricane is not that it was caused by climate change - whether or not it actually was, will be difficult to resolve, because the question fundamentally misunderstands the nature of extreme climate impacts.

Climate change alters probabilities. Higher sea levels make breaching of levees more likely. Extreme sea surface temperatures, associated with the thickening of the greenhouse blanket and the removal over past decades of the masking layer of other pollutants, make intense hurricanes more likely, and also weaken the corals that help dampen coastal storm waters. But both are subject to multiple other influences too. Although there is some evidence of tropical storms becoming more intense, the more exceptional the nature of the event, the more sparse are the statistics to rely on in passing judgement about trends and causes.


The importance of hurricane Katrina is, rather, that it is likely to pierce the high-level disinterest in the topic in the White House and give further impetus to the growing national debate. The devastation of New Orleans shows the United States itself is not invulnerable: the projected estimated costs of this one storm are comparable to the entire impact of climate change on gross domestic product that some economists had projected for mid-century.

This heightened sense of vulnerability should also make plain the risks of politicising scientific debate. A year ago, a colleague told me so few US scientists spoke out on the issue because they were frightened; frightened of political scrutiny of their research grants, and frightened of the witch-hunt to which a few outspoken colleagues had been subject like Ben Santer, the scientist who conducted the seminal 'finger-print' analysis linking observed climate impacts to human influence. Only in July, a group of top academics wrote to the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee complaining about his intimidatory pursuit of scientists giving evidence on the issue.

The aftermath of Katrina highlights the dilemma for those torn between refusing to believe the science, and asserting that a rich country like America can invest to protect itself: you cannot adequately prepare for a problem whose existence you still dispute. That core fact could more than anything help to normalise, and depoliticise, the scientific debate on climate change.


Even without its extreme weather, this year was always projected to be important for climate change diplomats. Officially, negotiations are to be launched to define the second round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, after the first round of targets expires in 2012. Twelve months ago that looked like a ridiculous proposition, given Washington's withdrawal from the Treaty and its refusal to discuss quantified commitments, and in a formal sense it still does. But 2005 could be a turning point nonetheless.

First, Kyoto's belated entry-into-force, in February, moved the world out of its state of uncertainty and instability about the status even of current frameworks and commitments. But it did so at the cost of moving us into a state of stalemate about the future. Before the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the climate change world was riven by two chasms: between America and the 150 countries that have joined the Kyoto Protocol; and within Kyoto, between the industrialised countries with emission targets, and the developing countries without.

The G8 summit was a turning point because it offered a process to overcome this political gulf. …

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