Sunday, August 31, 2008

Here we go again

On consequence of being an ex-RAF mountain rescue troop, with an additional 21 years in civilian SAR, is that I've already seen a lifetime's dose of dead, hurt, injured and distressed people.

Up close and personal.

It's different when you're the one who has to respond. One the one hand, emergencies become routine, something you prepare for as a regular job. I try to impress upon my beginning land navigation students in our Conservation Law Enforcement degree that as paid public servants sworn to uphold the constitution, protect the public, and otherwise be on the front line in many different kind of emergency, preparation is key. Personal preparation in terms of skills, knowledge and disposition. Preparation of work teams through training and familiarity exercises. Preparation of equipment. And last but by no means least, preparation of plans.

On the other hand, when you see something bad coming down the pipe, even if it's not in your "patch" of territory, you do involuntarily cringe. At least I always do. Because for all the training and all the prep and even all the excitement of finally getting to experience the "full Monty" of an honest to goodness call-out, it's never a good thing.

If this hurricane strengthens across the Gulf of Mexico, as it is very likely to do, and if it hits dead-on to one of the Gulf Coast cities involved in the debacle of 2005 (for which it only has to point north, pretty much), then the emergency services in that area will be in for a tough time again. And my heart goes out to them.

But it's not like it was just the Gulfies who had to sweat it out. Several Unity College students were there last time, at various stages, as Coastguard, Navy, and Army National Guard ratings. One or two of our firefighters were called in, even from the North East. The brother of one of our closest collaborators captained the Navy vessel that was used as a floating helipad for days and weeks. And we sent a team of jolly house-gutters down there to clean up and help begin rebuilding.

At some point, you have to begin, respectfully, to question the wisdom of rebuilding some of these areas. This is not the kind of thing you like to say out loud, because no-one wants to be told that your house, life, possessions, are all located in a place that nature intends to make untenable. And no poular politician is going to get elected on a platform of "lets evacuate -- permanently."

But one of the consequences of living in a scientific society is we have knowledge, albeit not perfect, of what may happen in the future. You have to understand probability to correctly apply this knowledge, and you need to be capable of dealing with concepts like "statistical significance" or "probability value."

Or not. Possibly you just need common sense and a proclivity to not get bamboozled by political propaganda disseminated by ridiculous radio talk shows and the politicians they support.

In a nutshell, several recent scientific studies have pointed to a strong likelihood that recent global warming trends have affected the frequency distribution of large tropical cyclones. It's very likely, upwards of 90%, that the frequency of large destructive typhoons and hurricanes has increased due to the presence of warmer waters for longer seasons in the tropics. While some scientists have investigated trends that pointed to a lowering of frequency, most, a large majority, are expecting an increase.

And in general, the results seem to bear this out. Here's a graphic from the Pew Trust showing the data from NOAA quite clearly:

So we have to begin to ask, why did we rebuild all those houses? Why did we encourage the repopulation of that city?

Luckily the effort was more than half-hearted. Many folks stayed away for good after Katrina. And the city took the EMS lessons to heart, it seems. The organization for the current evacuation, while still seemingly chaotic in some TV depictions, is actually an order of magnitude better and smarter.

I'm at least partly to blame, in a very small way. When the college organized that expedition to go down and do clean-up and house-gutting the following spring, I held my tongue too. The students were just so enthusiastic, the leaders so gung-ho, the community activists just so, well, active. I bit my tongue too. In retrospect, 20-20 hindsight, it might have been time better spent to join one of the Habitat for Humanity projects creating new housing on higher ground to the north. And I could have pressed the case. But I didn't. Too chicken.

It's so hard to tell people that they have to give up their homes. Even a humble home is something a lot of people have to work very hard for. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Believe me, I know. I would have a hard time facing up to it too.

So. Here we are again. Our collective failure to face facts has gotten us here. When are we going to find the courage to admit that climate change is a reality, that it is very serious, and that we need to act to slow emissions?

We also need to organize on whole new level for weather emergencies. We need to begin to adapt agriculture and housing to the new conditions we are already experiencing in most regions. Some of our cities will have to be abandoned, bit by bit. Their populations will need to be welcomed in other regions, and given assistance to resettle.

And we need to stop paying attention to climate deniers on the radio, the TV, and the Internet. At this point, by deflecting our attention from reality, while receiving payment for doing so from oil and coal companies and right wing idealogues, their behavior is soliciting a form of civic murder.

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