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Blaming Bush For Natural Disasters

John McGrath makes an offhand remark citing Hurricane Katrina as evidence that Bush's climate change policies have led to disaster (analogous to the way his WMD policy led to the disaster in Iraq). I agree that Bush's policies on climate change are deplorable, and that Bush's deplorable policies bear a fair bit of responsibility for the Katrina disaster. But the share of the Bush-blame that can be attributed specifically to his action on climate change is very small. Climatologists remain divided on the question of how much climate change will alter the frequency of severe weather events, and how much of that alteration is already visible.

Blaming Katrina on Bush's climate change policies may be politically convenient as a way of generating pressure to change those policies. But it's politically inconvenient in a broader sense, because it reinforces the "natural disaster" frame for understanding what went wrong with Katrina (and what continues to go wrong in many other hazard events).

The "natural disaster" frame envisions society as moving along innocently, minding its own business, when wham! it gets hit by an extreme geophysical event that causes destruction and death. Causal responsibility, and hence blame, lie on the side of the geophysical event. So therefore interventions to prevent or mitigate disasters focus on controlling the event, a "hazard-side" strategy.

Over half a century ago Gilbert White -- the father of natural hazards research, and hardly a political radical -- pointed out that "natural disasters" are actually the result of the intersection of natural and social conditions. Whether there is a disaster, and what kind of damage it does, depends on how social practices and individual choices put human values at risk of being undercut by changes in the natural environment. Later more radical thinkers elaborated the idea of "vulnerability," with the slogan "there's no such thing as a [purely] natural disaster." We have to focus on the reasons why humans become vulnerable to extreme geophysical events.

Framing Bush's responsibility for Katrina as a matter of his climate change policy places our focus on the hazard event. The problem becomes the fact that there was a Category 5 hurricane, and the change we need is to control greenhouse gas emissions so as not to increase the frequency of Category 5 hurricanes. This focus ignores the central role in the disaster played by New Orleanians' (and our whole economy's) vulnerability to hurricanes. This vulnerability is the product of an economic system dependent on oil and the creation of economic inequalities, a system of racial oppression, and a hubristic attitude to the environment. Across a broad range of issues, Bush's policies have served to maintain this system (though he is of course far from the sole creator or sustainer of it).

The "blame climate change" redirection of attention is especially unfortunate given that the sources of vulnerability in the case of Katrina are so fundamental to what's wrong in so many other facets of modern America. Big events like natural disasters are powerful political-rhetorical resources. They need to be used wisely, to cut at the most fundamental problems.


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