No Shelter from the Storm: Part II

Not only did corporate media largely cover for President George W. Bush’s post-Hurricane Katrina incompetence, the mainstream press failed to note that this unnatural disaster was the sort of superstorm climate scientists had been predicting for decades, thanks to our reckless refusal to curb carbon pollution.

Thankfully, a few brave souls put Katrina in the context of the climate crisis. Former Boston Globe reporter Ross Gelbspan, who wrote the seminal books The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription (1997) and Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis — and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster (2004), noted:

The hurricane that struck Louisiana yesterday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming…

As the atmosphere warms, it generates longer droughts, more-intense downpours, more-frequent heat waves, and more-severe storms.

Although Katrina began as a relatively small hurricane that glanced off south Florida, it was supercharged with extraordinary intensity by the relatively blistering sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

The consequences are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying.

Unfortunately, very few people in America know the real name of Hurricane Katrina because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt about the issue.

The reason is simple: To allow the climate to stabilize requires humanity to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent. That, of course, threatens the survival of one of the largest commercial enterprises in history.

In 1995, public utility hearings in Minnesota found that the coal industry had paid more than $1 million to four scientists who were public dissenters on global warming. And ExxonMobil has spent more than $13 million since 1998 on an anti-global warming public relations and lobbying campaign.

In 2000, big oil and big coal scored their biggest electoral victory yet when President George W. Bush was elected president — and subsequently took suggestions from the industry for his climate and energy policies.

As the pace of climate change accelerates, many researchers fear we have already entered a period of irreversible runaway climate change.

Against this background, the ignorance of the American public about global warming stands out as an indictment of the US media.

When the US press has bothered to cover the subject of global warming, it has focused almost exclusively on its political and diplomatic aspects and not on what the warming is doing to our agriculture, water supplies, plant and animal life, public health, and weather.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has lobbied the media to accord the same weight to a handful of global warming skeptics that it accords the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the United Nations.

Today, with the science having become even more robust — and the impacts as visible as the megastorm that covered much of the Gulf of Mexico — the press bears a share of the guilt for our self-induced destruction with the oil and coal industries.

Gelbspan was invited onto Democracy Now! to discuss his column a decade ago. Why didn’t the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and ABC World News Tonight extend him a similar invitation?

Bill Maher invited the late Stephen Schneider onto his HBO program Real Time to discuss the role that human-caused climate change played in fueling Katrina’s fury. Again, why didn’t the rest of the press take advantage of Schneider’s climate expertise?

Another climate truth-teller was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who noted an interesting irony about the savage storm:

As Hurricane Katrina dismantles Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, it’s worth recalling the central role that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played in derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad campaign promise to regulate CO2.

In March of 2001, just two days after EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s strong statement affirming Bush’s CO2 promise former RNC Chief Barbour responded with an urgent memo to the White House.

Barbour, who had served as RNC Chair and Bush campaign strategist, was now representing the president’s major donors from the fossil fuel industry who had enlisted him to map a Bush energy policy that would be friendly to their interests. His credentials ensured the new administration’s attention.

The document, titled “Bush-Cheney Energy Policy & CO2,” was addressed to Vice President Cheney, whose energy task force was then gearing up, and to several high-ranking officials with strong connections to energy and automotive concerns keenly interested in the carbon dioxide issue, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, White House chief of staff Andy Card and legislative liaison Nick Calio. Barbour pointedly omitted the names of Whitman and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, both of whom were on record supporting CO2 caps. Barbour’s memo chided these administration insiders for trying to address global warming which Barbour dismissed as a radical fringe issue.

“A moment of truth is arriving,” Barbour wrote, “in the form of a decision whether this Administration’s policy will be to regulate and/or tax CO2 as a pollutant. The question is whether environmental policy still prevails over energy policy with Bush-Cheney, as it did with Clinton-Gore.” He derided the idea of regulating CO2 as “eco-extremism,” and chided them for allowing environmental concerns to “trump good energy policy, which the country has lacked for eight years.”

The memo had impact. “It was terse and highly effective, written for people without much time by a person who controls the purse strings for the Republican Party,” said John Walke, a high-ranking air quality official in the Clinton administration.

On March 13, Bush reversed his previous position, announcing he would not back a CO2 restriction using the language and rationale provided by Barbour. Echoing Barbour’s memo, Bush said he opposed mandatory CO2 caps, due to “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge” about global climate change.

Well, the science is clear. This month, a study published in the journal Nature by a renowned MIT climatologist linked the increasing prevalence of destructive hurricanes to human-induced global warming.

Gelbspan, Schneider and Kennedy told the truth about the fossil-fueled ferocity of Hurricane Katrina. However, they weren’t the only truth-tellers to emerge in the wake of that storm.

NEXT: A Bush critic tells it like it is.

UPDATE: Democracy Now!‘s August 30, 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.