The Real Story Behind the Midwest Floods? Climate Change
The floodwaters are rising, swamping cities, breaching levees. Tens of thousands are displaced. Many are dead. No, I am not talking about Hurricane Katrina, but about the Midwest United States. As the floodwaters head south along the Mississippi, devastating communities one after another, the media are overflowing with televised images of the destruction.
While the TV meteorologists document "extreme weather" with their increasingly sophisticated toolbox, from Doppler radar to 3-D animated maps, the two words rarely uttered are its cause: global warming. I asked former Energy Department official Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, about the disconnect:
"Part of the reason is that the people who write about global warming for most newspapers and TV are not the same people as those who tend to cover weather. In general, the media is covering this as all sort of unconnected events, just regular weather maybe gone a little wacky. But, in fact, the scientific community has predicted for more than two decades now that as we pour more heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet will heat up, and that would redistribute water. If you heat up the planet ... you evaporate more water, and areas that are wetter will tend to see more intense rainfall and deluges and earlier snowmelts, and all that will lead to flooding. So what we're seeing is exactly what scientists have been telling us would happen because of human emissions."Perry Beeman is an award-winning investigative reporter for The Des Moines Register, and former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. From his flood-racked city of Des Moines, he told me: "Not even a few weeks before this all happened, we were in the middle of doing a climate-change series that's going to run over the year. We had two-page graphic talking about the different things that would happen [in Iowa as a result of climate change] and pointing out ... that you would expect more torrential rains. What has happened here is consistent with many scientists' view of what global warming will mean in the Midwest."
So if the disasters that follow one another, from hurricanes to tornadoes to flooding, are consistent with global warming, why aren't the networks, the weather reporters, making the link? Dr. Heidi Cullen, a climate expert on The Weather Channel, created a stir in late 2006 when she wrote in her Weather Channel blog: "If a meteorologist can't speak to the fundamental science of climate change, then maybe the AMS [American Meteorological Society] shouldn't give them a Seal of Approval. If a meteorologist has an AMS Seal of Approval, which is used to confer legitimacy to TV meteorologists, then meteorologists have a responsibility to truly educate themselves on the science of global warming."
As reporters stood in waist-high water in the flooded downtowns of major American cities, President George Bush basked in the sunlight in Washington, D.C., urging Congress to lift the ban on offshore oil drilling and on oil shale drilling, and to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. While regular people are getting hit in the wallet at the gas pump, paying now more than $4 per gallon for gasoline, the oil, coal and gas industries are reaping huge rewards, and applying pressure to open up protected spaces for resource extraction.
One of the candidates to replace Bush has a solution. When I asked Ralph Nader about global warming this week, he said: "We've got to have a national mission of converting our economy, and the example for the world is solar energy, 4 billion years of supply. It is environmentally benign, decentralized, makes us energy-independent and replaces the ExxonMobil/Peabody Coal/uranium complex. That is why we have got to go for economic, political, health and safety reasons."
Nader understands how the levers of power and influence operate in Washington, but also how flooding can devastate a community. He grew up in Winsted, Conn., where the Mad River and Still River flooded in 1955, where another Nader confronted another Bush. Ralph Nader's mother, Rose, shook the hand of Bush's grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush, R-Conn., and refused to let go until he agreed to build a dry dam. The dry dam got built, and Winsted hasn't flooded since. A half-century later, our global problems have gotten far worse. Citizen activists need to shake not hands but the system, holding to account those with power and influence, from politicians to the personalities who report the weather on TV.
Denis Moynihan assisted on today's column.