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Global Warming and Extreme Weather: Hurricane Charley Leaves 16 Dead, Thousands Homeless

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Hurricane Charley rips through Florida leaving 16 dead many thousands homeless without water or electricity. We speak with David Helvarg and George Monbiot about extreme weather and the effects of global warming. [includes rush transcript]

The death toll from Hurricane Charley climbed to 16 on Sunday with many thousands left homeless in Florida. The Category 4 storm churned diagonally across the state from the southwest coast to the northeast corner after smashing ashore on Friday.

The fiercest hurricane to strike Florida in 12 years, Charley’s 145 mph winds destroyed mobile homes, ripped roofs off houses and damaged tens of thousands of other buildings.

While 16 people have been confirmed killed, authorities would not give estimates of the number of injured and displaced. More than a million are without electricity, half that without water. Utility officials said it could be up to three weeks before service to some could be restored. A preliminary estimate puts the damage at $11 billion just for insured homes.

Federal and state officials are working to hasten the arrival of aid. The Florida National Guard activated 4,000 troops for the recovery effort and aid agencies are providing meals and shelter.

President Bush toured Florida, a key swing state in the presidential election against Democratic candidate John Kerry.

Charley was the most devastating storm to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew ripped up parts of Miami in 1992 and caused $25 billion in damage. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was president and faced criticism for reacting too slowly.

  • David Helvarg, President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the books The War Against the Greens and Blue Frontier: Saving Americas Living Seas. He is also a contributor to Feeling the Heat–Reports from the Frontlines of Climate Change.
  • George Monbiot, author and columnist for the London Guardian. His latest book is “Manifesto for a New World Order.” His articles are posted on his website www.monbiot.com.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk now about extreme weather with George Monbiot, author and columnist for The London Guardian, he’s written the book Manifesto for a New World Order and David Helvarg, he’s president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, and author of Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas. He’s also a contributor to Feeling the Heat: Reports from the Front Lines of Climate Change. David Helvarg, I would like to begin with you. I have been watching television a lot this weekend and hearing the reports on the radio as well. On most of the commercial networks it was almost wall to wall weather reports. But I never heard two words together — global warming. Is there a connection?

DAVID HELVARG: Yeah, Amy, that’s —- I noticed that, too, when there’s a disastrous fires in the West, President Bush was quite willing to go out there and use them as back drops to advocate for his Healthy Forests initiatives to open up public lands for logging company, but the media seems very reluctant to address climate change, and while it’s true that you can’t link it to one individual hurricane storm or event, the trends are so clear at this point that you know, we already have a 25-year cycle of intensified hurricanes that takes place in the north Atlantic. You add climate impacts on top of that, increased sea level rise, erosion, intensified wind shear, 5 to 10 degrees, 5 to 10% and you see, you know, that there’s a reason that it looks now like eight out of the last ten hurricane seasons will be above average. And of course, you know, the irony is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is bringing in relief is sort of generating business for itself. Because it’s got 673 billion dollars of flood insured properties out there, and about half of that money is in Florida. And none of that flood insurance takes into account rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes, the other impacts of global warming. In fact, it’s a driver of putting people in harm’s way, and 17 of our 20 fastest growing counties are now coastal. You see that this encouragement of coastal sprawl that both degrades our marine environments and puts millions of people in harm’s way— had Charley stayed on track and hit the Tampa–St. Pete area, this probably would have been one of those $50 billion to $100 billion city buster storms that the climatologists I talked to are all projecting at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain again the mechanism for how coastal sprawl is being driven?

DAVID HELVARG: Yes. We have since 1968, a federal flood insurance program that’s below market rate that essentially until — until the federal government got into the business of insuring ocean-front properties, banks were not willing to provide mortgages to build in places like Captiva and Sanibel, which are these very upscale barrier islands that also got struck. I bet a lot of the federal money will be going not to the trailer courts but to these very upscale–Barrier islands are kinda like geology on amphetamines. They’re made to move. Nobody would build there until the federal flood insurance came along. And the banks, once these constructions sites were insured for flooding, the banks then provided the mortgages and the developers went wild. So at this point it’s grown to potentially our largest exposure after our Social Security. Like I say, the U.S. government insures $673 billion of property and much of it is in flood planes and in areas of high erosion due to sea-level rise. Both the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission, two major commissions that just reported on the state of America’s blue frontier, both recommended reforming the flood control system, not to allow it to encourage new growth in high risk areas, interestingly, three, the governors, commented on the Ocean Policy Commission, at least three republican governors from Maryland, Massachusetts and South Carolina also said we need to reduce the incentives for development in these high risk areas. Jeb Bush was not one of the governors who called for reforming the act. He’s much more responsive to the Florida real estate interests. So what he does, he goes into this flood zone the other day and says, come on back to Punta Gorda a year from now, the tourism and the place will be even more beautiful, basically arguing that we should rebuild in harm’s way because it’s — I think it’s, you know, what the real estate industry is driving him to do.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, author of Diagnosis Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas, also author of The War Against the Greens. We’re also joined by George Monbiot, author and columnist for The London Guardian. He was in our studio recently talking about his book, Manifesto for a New World Order. You speak a lot about extreme weather, in fact, I remember a year ago when we were experiencing the blackout here in New York, we talked to you about extreme weather. Can you talk about your view from across the Atlantic of what’s taking place?

GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s not possible, Amy, to say that this is definitely the result of global warming, because what we we’re looking at is a whole pattern of climate which is very likely to trigger off all sorts of freak weather events. But we can’t say that any particular weather event is the result of climate change. What we can say is that it’s precisely this kind of event which the people have been warning against climate change have been warning about. They have been saying that if there is warming, global warming we are going to see a lot more storms and there will be a lot more violent when they occur. Now, of course, this is caused enormous grief and upset and damage to people in the United States but at the same time as that’s been going on, there’s been some far graver things happening in other parts of the world. We have seen enormous damage caused by floods in Bangladesh, with many, many thousands of people pushed out of their homes by those floods and a great deal of disease caused and malnutrition caused by them at the same time. Far more seriously still, we are currently see the world’s glaciers going into retreat at a very great rate and this includes the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains. These are the glaciers which feed all of the great rivers of Asia. Whether it’s the Yangtze or the Mekong or the Brahmaputra or Ganges or the Indus. These are the rivers which support the irrigation agriculture, which produces the great majority of the food which people in most parts of Asia eat. And if those rivers run dry, because the glaciers melt as indeed they are melting very rapidly, then that irrigation agriculture is no longer going to be possible. Not just for the region, but the entire world goes into net food deficit. The result of that is a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there more attention on the issue of global warming and extreme climate in Europe and Britain than there is here in the United States?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, there is. For a couple of reasons. For a start, we have a little more diversity in the media. I mean, in the United States. Of course, you have some fantastic media. I’m talking to one of them, but you will also have in the mainstream media a much more effectively controlled system where in Britain there’s more diversity within the mainstream media and so there’s more scope to discuss these things. We’re also very aware of what happened last summer in Europe where 20,000 people died as a result of extreme heat and it was an extraordinary situation. I mean, the temperatures went way beyond all previous records. Right across most of Europe. That — that again, seems to be entirely in line with the predictions made by climatologists. Yet at the same time in Britain, and in Europe, we have this level of awareness, but at the same time people desperately want to believe what this handful of so-called climate skeptics are saying. They are saying, don’t worry about it, it’s all cause by cosmic rays or sun spots or whatever other excuse they might come up with this week, and these people have as much credibility among climatologists as the people who say there’s no connection between smoking and lung cancer, have among doctors. In other words, they have zero, almost zero scientific credibility. And yet, we listen to them and we listen to them because to — to accept what the great majority of climate scientists are saying, to accept what almost certainly seems to be happening around the world is to accept something which is extremely scary and we just don’t want to go down that road.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, final comment?

DAVID HELVARG: Yeah. It is ironic that last summer when you have historic heat wave and flooding in Europe, most Europeans recognize it as climate change. When we have historic drought and forest fires in the west, they blame environmentalists. I think that, the fact that, our President, his dad, his vice President, Secretary of Commerce and National Security Adviser are all veterans of the oil industry, y’know, if your major campaign contributors are oil and gas industry, you’re not likely to admit that they’re also the major contributors to climate change and that we need a rapid and immediate transition to new non-carbon energy technologies. That’s probably the — I have been and covered climate change in Antarctica, Australia, Fiji, New Jersey and Florida. We’re in the footprint, we’re in the process of going through some very scary changes as he said. And probably the first step in remediating that would be a regime change here at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Helvarg and George Monbiot, I want to thank you for being with us. David Helvarg’s book, is Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas, as well as The War Against the Greens. George Monbiot, Manifesto for a New World Order. This is Democracy Now!

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