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.

Cross-posted at debitage

This entry posted in Environmental issues, Katrina. Bookmark the permalink. 

8 Responses to Blaming Bush for Natural Disasters

  1. Pingback: feminist blogs

  2. Pingback: FeministBlogosphere

  3. Pingback: Katrina

  4. 4
    Josh Jasper says:

    Good point. I think the majority of the valid criticism has focused on (a) the titanic (in the true epimethian sense) lack of competence in the Bush administration. and (b) the denial by the Bush administration that Global warming is already causing horribly damaging weather, climate change, etc…

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    We have to focus on the reasons why humans become vulnerable to extreme geophysical events.

    Humans will always be vulnerable to extreme geophysical events. Take a Category 4 hurricane, such as Katrina (Katrina was a Cat 4, not a Cat 5, when it hit N.O.). We’re talking something with a total energy of several hydrogen fusion bombs. This is not something that we are not going to be vulnerable. It would be a stunning display of hubris to think that we wouldn’t be vulnerable to such an event.

    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.

    N.O. was vulnerable to hurricanes from the day it was built on the seacost of one of the most active regions for hurricanes on the planet. This was back when machines were lubricated and lamps were lit with whale oil, long before petroleum-based oil and fuels had any role in the American economy. N.O. was vulnerable to a Cat 4 hurricane because it’s on the seacoast; is situated between the ocean, a large lake, and the continent’s largest river; is built not on any kind of stable rock or soil but on millions of years of silt deposits; and said silt deposits are sinking up to an inch a year in some areas because natural forces and the removal of water for drinking and other various purposes are causing it to shrink and slump into the ocean, and channelizing the Mississippi for anti-flooding and shipping purposes keep new silt from replenishing the soil.

    N.O.’s economy was built on shipping. If there was no oil and gas being extracted from the area, N.O. would still exist; it’s at the mouth (or was, now it’s inland) of the biggest river on the continent, and huge amounts of bulk goods go in and out of that port every day.

    So the question of why N.O. is vulnerable to Cat 4 hurricanes has little to do with politics and a lot to do with where it is. The next questions is, what can be done to help ameliorate it’s vulnerability? The answer is, damn little. Sure, you can keep building dikes and levees. But designs for such things presume that the foundation for these structures and the surrounding areas are static, whereas in N.O.’s case they are moving, and moving the wrong direction (down) to boot. And bracing for such structures have to be sunk in unstable silt. Getting down to bedrock would mean sinking them hundreds of feet, not 20 or 30 or even 100. This would be very expensive and require constant maintenance (remember, the surrounding soil is sinking).

    Now, finally, we come to political considerations. There’s definitely a few to consider.

    1) Why have the local politicians been lying to their constituents about the practicality (including costs) of maintaining human habitation in those areas of N.O. most prone to flooding?
    2) At what point and why was the State government complicit in this?
    3) At what point and why was the Federal government complicit in this?
    4) What effect does trying to blame the flooding and other effects of a hurricane in N.O. on red herrings like the role of oil in the economy, economic inequalities, and racial oppression have on diverting people’s attention from actually doing something useful?

    I quite agree that much of the problem with N.O. is a hubristic attitude towards the environment. The story of King Canute illustrates it perfectly, I think.

  6. 6
    Josh Jasper says:

    The human tragedy was not that the area was vulnerable, it was that there was a catastrophic failure in prevention measures over decades, and a catastrophic failrure of government response to the hurricane. This is where not only Bush failed big time, and also where the Army Corp of Enginners failed, and where the local government failed. It was a “perfect storm” of incompetence.

    If we do not learn to do better than this, we will see tihs sort of thing happen again. This cannot be just a local issue. New Orleans getting mostly destroyed affected the entire US economy, and beyond that, the world economy. Natural disasters are inevitable, but our response does not have to be inevitably incompetent. If we keep electing people like Bush, our response will get worse, not better. I do not belive Bush has an ability to learn from mistakes, because he does not accept that it’s possible to make them.

  7. 7
    RonF says:

    The human tragedy was not that the area was vulnerable, it was that there was a catastrophic failure in prevention measures over decades, and a catastrophic failrure of government response to the hurricane. This is where not only Bush failed big time, and also where the Army Corp of Enginners failed, and where the local government failed. It was a “perfect storm” of incompetence.

    True enough. But then we get right back to my political questions; why did every single layer of government fail? All levels of government failed to recognize the true nature of the problem. The local government failed to implement the very practical plan they’d put together. The state government failed to deal with the failings of the local government. The Feds had the least culpability here, but even they had failures. And finally, the local citizens failed; they had the chance to put their incompetent mayor out of office post-Katrina, but failed to do that. Was his opposition that bad (a straight-up question – I’m not up to speed on local N.O. politics) that he made Nagin look good? Or did the citizenry respond to Nagin making promises he can’t keep?

    Bush’s appointees at “Homeland Security” didn’t do what they could have, and he has to wear the jacket for that. And the Army Corps of Engineers over both Republican and Democratic administrations acted a lot more like politicans and a lot less like engineers when they apparently implemented a levee construction plan that was known to be out of date but which would have been politically difficult to update when the funding was finally approved. But it was the job of the local and State authorities to get people out of town prior to Katrina, as they had acknowledged when the evacuation plan was drawn up and approved. And they didn’t do it, they couldn’t face what was happening and actually lead for once, instead of using polls to figure out where the parade was going and using blame-avoiding speeches to run up to get in front. I guess Nagin and the Gov. of Louisiana were more worried about losing votes than losing lives.

    Let’s face it; even if constructed properly, the levees were only supposed to hold up to a Cat 3 hurricane. This time, a hurricane that was Cat 3 when it went by N.O. (remember, it wasn’t a direct hit) caused a lot of damage. If the levees and dikes and other facilities were built up to the original correct specification, it would still be chancy if a Cat 3 hurricane hit N.O. dead on. If a Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm hits N.O., none of the flood control measures will hold. And it’s too expensive to put together a flood control system that will sustain a hit by a > Cat 3 storm. Even if we DO do better than this, this WILL happen again.

    What’s left of N.O. is living on borrowed time. What ended up below water likely shouldn’t be rebuilt. What we need are leaders that will face that, tell people the truth instead of what they want to hear (“the levees will hold” “it won’t happen” “it’s Bush’s fault” “it’s racial discrimination”), and do what needs to be done.

  8. 8
    Stentor says:

    I’m not saying that N.O. would be completely invulnerable to hurricanes if only we had a more just society. What I’m saying is that the magnitude of the damage is greatly influenced by social structural factors. Addressing these deeper factors would create an important (and resilient) reduction in the amount of harm suffered due to Gulf coast hurricanes.