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Environment

Hurricane-Climate Books

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyAugust 7, 2006 5:45 AM

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Here they come, surfing atop the literary swell generated by the upcoming one year anniversary of Katrina: The first two popular books (that I'm aware of, anyway) that put global warming and hurricanes in the foreground. Neither book is exclusively devoted to the subject, as far as I can tell; but both books discuss it, and indeed, that's obvious from their titles:

Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities, by Mike Tidwell

Hmm...sounds like both of these books are going to be sounding the alarm about stronger hurricanes due to global warming. I've just ordered both from Amazon (links above) so we'll soon find out if my supposition is right. It will be very interesting to see how/if they deal with the scientific uncertainty and debate surrounding this issue. Without tipping my hand about my own book (which is not going to be out until sometime next year), judging from these titles I'm pretty postive that it will be taking a very different approach. But let's look a bit more closely at the angles taken by these two books, based on the info provided on Amazon.com. First, the McQuaid and Schleifstein book:

Book Description America and the world were stunned in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans. Shocking images seared the national consciousness: a city under water; entire families pulled from holes chopped in rooftops; children begging for water outside the convention center; hundreds of people waiting for days in hundred-degree heat alongside an interstate for buses that seemed never to arrive. To grasp how Katrina could happen in twenty-first-century America, you have to understand the untold backstory of the catastrophe, from New Orleans's centuries-long flirtation with disaster, to the heroic attempts by a handful of local scientists and officials to sound warning bells, to the ignorant and misguided decisions by politicians, bureaucrats, and engineers that set the stage for the catastrophe. In PATH OF DESTRUCTION: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms (Little, Brown and Company; August 16, 2006; $25.99), John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, give a full account of the storm and the dreadful inadequacies that existed prior to 2005, an indictment of the officials at all levels who failed to act, and a scientific investigation into why these huge storms have only just begun.

Hmm...sounds like the hurricane-climate stuff will just be tacked on the end here, though we'll have to see. It also seems like the authors are endorsing the position that hurricanes are indeed intensifying in a measurable way as result of global warming--a position held by many respected scientists but also disputed by others. Now let's look at the next book, by Tidwell (warning, it has a much longer write-up):

Book Description If, like many Americans, you believe the ongoing tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, you need to read this book. In the coming years and decades, the safety of your region, your town, your home may depend on the warnings you'll encounter on these pages. That's because the exact same conditions that created the Katrina catastrophe and destroyed New Orleans are being replicated right now along virtually every inch of U.S. coastline. In The Ravaging Tide, Mike Tidwell, a renowned advocate for the environment and an award-winning journalist, issues a call to arms and confronts us with some unsettling facts. Consider: * In the next seventy-five years, much of the Florida peninsula could lie under ocean water. * So could much of Lower Manhattan, including all of the hallowed ground zero area. * Major hurricanes like Katrina, scientists say, are becoming much more frequent and more powerful. * Glacier National Park in Montana will have to change its name, as it is rapidly losing all of its thirty-five remaining glaciers. * The snows atop Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, so memorably evoked in the Hemingway story, have already disappeared. The fault, Tidwell argues, lies mostly with the U.S. government and the energy choices it has encouraged Americans to make over the decades. Those policies are now actively bringing rising seas and gigantic hurricanes -- the lethal forces that killed the Big Easy -- crashing into every coastal city in the country and indeed the world. The Bush administration's own reports and studies (some of which it has tried to suppress) explicitly predict more intense storms and up to three feet of sea-level rise by 2100 due to planetary warming. The danger is clear: Whether the land sinks three feet per century (as in New Orleans over the past 100 years) or sea levels rise three feet per century (as in the rest of the world over the next 100 years), the resulting calamity is the same. Although Mike Tidwell sounds the clarion in The Ravaging Tide, this is ultimately an optimistic book, one that offers a clear path to a healthier and safer world for us and our descendants. He writes of trend-setting U.S. states like New York and California that are actively cutting greenhouse gases. And he heeds his own words: In one delightful personal chapter, he takes us on a tour of his suburban Washington, D.C., home and demonstrates how he and many of his neighbors have weaned themselves from the fossil-fuel lifestyle. Even when the government is slow to change, there are steps we as families can take to, yes, change the world.

Okay, so, here it seems clear that Tidwell is endorsing the hurricanes-are-intensifying position--indeed, he's sounding the alarm about it. But he's also treating it in the broader context of the vulnerability of our coasts to climate change. I will be very interested to see how both of these books depict the science....

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