The Environmental Response: What Floods?

by: Matt Stoller

Fri Jun 13, 2008 at 13:32

I just got off the phone with a Congressional staffer, who couldn't quite focus on the issue we were supposed to discuss because she is working overtime on the floods in the Midwest.  So I turned on cable news, and found out that the floods are plastered all over, much as the wildfires in California were in October of 2007.  And just like 2007, the major environmental groups are AWOL on the most covered climate event of the year so far.

Here's an answer to a vexing question for lots of liberals.  If you want to know why there is no action on global warming, do the following simple exercise.  Turn on cable news right now, or do a Google News search for floods.    Here are some news headlines you might find.

Matt Stoller :: The Environmental Response: What Floods?
In Pictures, Iowa Floods from the BBC.
Wide Range Of Weather Ills Plague U.S. from the AP.
Flood waters, death toll rise after weekend storms from CNN.

None of these stories mention climate change, yet, as Joe Romm points out, extreme downpours are exactly what the NOAA found is increasingly common in the last fifty years, with "a 20 percent increase in "very heavy rain events", and these fit with global warming prediction models.  Romm goes on to point out that "2007 saw the second most extreme precipitation over the United States in the historical record, according to NCDC's Climate Extremes Index."

So one would think the press would cover global warming in the context of extreme weather.  Of course journalists don't.  But is this a media problem?  Yes, but it's not just a media problem.  I looked at the home pages and press pages of the Sierra Club, NRDC, Environmental Defense, the League of Conservation Voters, and Al Gore's We Can Solve It.  The Sierra Club is asking for higher mileage standards on cars, NRDC is discussing lead and growing support for action on global warming, the League of Conservation Voters brags about its recent endorsement of Gabrielle Giffords, Environmental Defense asks for lower gas prices, and We Can Solve It puts its new ad front and center.

So yes, the media isn't tying the Iowa floods to global warming.  But then, neither are the major environmental groups.  As these extreme weather events become more common due to global warming, there will be more competition to tie these events to climate change policy action, a sort of Shock Doctrine in reverse.  One interesting irony is that Iowa is ground zero for these floods, and it was in Iowa where none of the major environmental groups backed a candidate - Ed Fallon - calling for a moratorium on coal versus conservative Democrat Leonard Boswell that wants to continue tax breaks for oil companies.  Gore, of course, endorsed Boswell, and he and Tipper maxed out to him.

Meanwhile, Grist and Dailykos are all over the connection between the flood and global warming, as is the Center for American Progress's Wonk Room (who was attacked by Drudge).  

I don't know what's going on behind the scenes, so it might be the case that there is a coordinated green response to these floods.  If there is, I will be sure to update this post.  And of course, if leaders Carl Pope, Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, or Brent Blackwelder have comments on this, I'll happily update my post.

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Global Warming, Wildfires And Drought In The West (4.00 / 3)

I wrote about the connections in diaries last year, here and here.

A brief excerpt:

he blast furnace of Santa Ana-driven wildfires has receded, but three things are certain: First, they'll be back.  Second, it will  be sooner, rather than later, and with increasingly intensity.  Third, we won't be prepared.

An Associated Press story, titled "Global Warming Could Worsen California Wildfires,"began: "Drought- and beetle-ravaged trees in this mountain community stick up like matchsticks in the San Bernardino  National Forest, bypassed by the fires still smoldering, but left  like kindling for the next big blaze.

Welcome to the future."

The story was written in 2003.

But even then, it was old news, whether AP new it or not. We are already two decades into that future, according to a study published in Science magazine three years later, which examined every forest fire that burned at least 1,000 acres in "federal land-management units containing 61% of western forested areas." Out of 1,166 fires in that period, four-fifths of them-about 900 fires-occurred after 1987, a period in which the average fire season length increased by 78 days, almost equally due to starting earlier and ending later.

That explosion in the number of fires is matched by increases in size. On CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday, October 21, Tom Boatner, chief of fire operations for the federal government, said, "Ten years ago, if you had a 100,000 acre fire, you were talking about a huge fire. And if we had one or two of those a year, that was probably unusual. Now we talk about 200,000 acre fires like it's just another day at the office. It's been a huge change."

Despite the growing threat, which global warming will only intensify, California has done very little to prepare itself since the 2003 wave of fires, and no place has done less than San Diego County, home to noted social critic Mike Davis.

"Since I published The Ecology of Fear, a lot of the fire scientists' views have almost become conventional wisdom among firefighters and the public, but it doesn't make much difference," Davis told Random Lengths.

"There was a sense of optimism after the 2003 fire, when people thought some kind of change was possible, but everything was shot down. It was crushed by development money at the polls," Davis added. "The grand jury urged the creation of a county fire department, that was never implemented.  The [San Diego] city fire chief quit in frustration."

I go on to discuss how the weather patterns represent a return to what's in the geological record from ~600 years ago, with multi-decade droughts in the West--only it could get much worse.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Not to mention tornados (4.00 / 1)
This year will likely break a record for the number of tornados in the US.

Also, the Cedar River flood height is shattering the old record set in 1851. For Iowa anyway, 1993 didn't have nothing on this year.

In general, more heat means more energy. At some point it's going to catch up with us, sooner apparently rather than later.

An interesting study would be to assume that some percentage of weather-related disasters in the past 10 years (when human-caused global warming finally really started showing up in the US) was due to climate change. And to then add up the costs of those disasters and see how that changes projections of the costs of doing nothing to stop global warming. I imagine it would dramatically increase those estimates of the cost of doing nothing.

And for the right, who says that doing something will hurt the economy, I wonder if the residents of Cedar Rapids are feeling right now that doing nothing is better than the status quo for their economy.  

It blows my mind (4.00 / 2)
I just can't believe they don't use these events.

I believe there's a belief that "We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and because no individual event can be said to be caused by global warming, we should just keep away from them."

Of course, refusing to show people what global warming is doing to the earth because the particular example isn't necessarily, but very well might be related to global warming is insane. But I think that type of reasoning is pretty common.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.

"This Is What A Global Warming World Looks Like" (4.00 / 4)
The thing is, you don't have to say that "global warming caused this."  All you have to say is that more global warming means more and more weather like this.

"This is your future on global warming."

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Exactly! (0.00 / 0)
"Tragedies like the flooding in Iowa are sure to get more common as climate change makes weather patterns more extreme and unpredictable. Politicians all over the country are pledging their support for the victims of this disaster, yet congress and President Bush refuse to pass a bill that adequately deals with this problem. While they act to provide the needed help for those suffering in today's floods, they are condemning future generations to worse and more severe disasters."

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.

[ Parent ]
Inserting global warming into mainstream discussion (4.00 / 1)
These events have done so much on their own to raise awareness of global warming to your average low-info voter. It's an outright crime of PR that they haven't been seized upon by environmental agencies.
   Obviously, there's not going to be evidence of causality, but, as Paul points out, it ought to make for a hugely resonant this-is-your-planet-on global-warming type argument.

[ Parent ]
Yup (4.00 / 2)
I remember back in October sitting on my roof at 4am watching the fires crest the last mountain before between me and 100,000 burned acres, trying to figure out how- if there's fire on three sides and an ocean on the other- I would evacuate should it come to that, and wondering (because I'm a bit crazy maybe) if this stuff would ever really be politicized beyond the who-reacted-too-slowly crap. Still hasn't, I suppose it won't for fears of the appearance of trying to score political points on tragedy.

John McCain opposes the GI Bill.

well, you prompted me to write the NRDC (0.00 / 0)
I hope it makes a difference.

Hello NRDC,

I was prompted to write this e-mail after watching pictures of the unprecedented flooding in the Mid-west today.  This is the future on Global warming.  The flooding in Iowa is beyond unprecedented.  The last record crest in Cedar Rapids was about 20feet.  This flood is projected to crest at 33feet.  The NRDC should be devoting press time, front page web time and general resources to communicate the magnitude of the flooding in the mid-west.  The NRDC does not have to exploit the tragedy of the flood to promote global warming but I think it has a duty to educate the public about the very real costs and dangers of global warming.  Will discussing the mid-west flooding spark possible backlash or questions on how it is related to Global Warming?  Yes, but isn't that the point?  Isn't a vigorous debate about the cost of doing nothing about Global Warming just as valuable as the fear mongering by big business over the "cost" of regulating carbon?  I think the NRDC should immediately involve itself with these tragic mid-west floods.  Will the media and pundits challenge claims by environmental groups that global warming caused this flood?  Yes, and then show them the global warming models that have predicted greater flooding, more severe flooding, more severe tornadoes and the greater chance and intensity of wildfires.  This is the future on Global Warming and if little to nothing is done, tomorrow will be much, much worse than today.  The NRDC should stop playing it safe, delicately navigating public opinion.  Did Global Warming specifically cause today's flooding in Iowa?  No, but all climate models show that the warming temperatures contributed to the strength and energy of this week's storms. Energy that allowed flood waters to swell way past the previous 20foot record and soar to the incredible level of 30 feet.  The NRDC and the other environmental groups should re-think it's global warming strategy and help educate the nation to look with great alarm at the flooding now occurring throughout the mid-west.  



No killer instinct (4.00 / 1)
This was good:

But I get the feeling that most of the enviro groups are stuck in wonk/ideal land, and don't really understand how to build or use political power for their ends.

The Death of Environmentalism.

Me | My Work | Future Majority

There is some hope (4.00 / 1)
I guess I'm just lucky to have such a resource as Minnesota Public Radio.  The discussions about weather and climate change are common, especially when the flood waters and tornadoes are in our back yard.  One example is here:


Will Steger is a MN native (I'm pretty sure) and shows up on the programs quite regularly.  Generally these are call-in shows (and MPR listeners are not generally what you would call "low info", so you get substantive questions and comments).

Plus, on the morning show they often have extended weather discussions (how very mid-western!) that cover global warming issues and how such influence our weather patterns.  Not a single week goes by that these are not explicitly linked on this radio station.

Now, I'm not saying that one radio station is gonna chnage the world, nor am I trying to knock down your diary, I'm just trying to point out that, in MN at least, the worm may be starting to turn.  

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


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