“No Good Science Goes Unpunished”–Environmental Journalist David Helvarg on the Bush Administration, Climate Change and Hurricanes

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As the 2006 hurricane season officially begins we speak with environmental journalist and author David Helvarg about hurricanes, coastal development and “Category 5 foolishness.” Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of “Blue Frontier: Saving Americas Living Seas.” [includes rush transcript]

Last Thursday, marked the official start of hurricane season. Experts predict that there will be 17 storms resulting in nine full-blown hurricanes this year. And some point to global warming as a cause for bigger and stronger storms like Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast last year. The United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change estimates that temperatures will rise by 10 degrees by the next century. The organization also predicts that rainfall will increase 20% in wet regions, causing floods and decrease 20 % in dry regions causing draughts. Yet many fear that the U.S is as unprepared as ever to address these potential disasters even after the experience of Hurricane Katrina. They point out that government has done little to stop the destruction of wetlands or development along coastal areas which are factors that transform storms into major human catastrophes.

The environmental journalist, and author David Helvarg wrote in last week’s Los Angeles Times that, “The facts are simple. The best available science tells us that we’re faced with a projected sea-level rise and an increase in category 4 and 5 hurricanes. We need a pragmatic approach to a changed reality. Those who think they can rebuild in harm’s way using the same assumptions that worked in the last century or who believe they can manage nature by stockpiling generators and water bottles, are living a dangerous fantasy. Unfortunately theirs is a fantasy we are all having to pay for.”

The words of David Helvarg — who is joining us now in the studio. David is the 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.” His latest books are “Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness” and “50 Ways to Save the Ocean.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: The environmental journalist and author David Helvarg wrote in last week’s Los Angeles Times that, quote, “The facts are simple. The best available science tells us we’re faced with a projected sea level rise and an increase in category four and five hurricanes. We need a pragmatic approach to a changed reality,” he wrote, and went on to say, “Those who think they can rebuild in harm’s way using the same assumptions that worked in the last century or who believe they can manage nature by stockpiling generators and water bottles are living in a dangerous fantasy. Unfortunately, theirs a fantasy we are having to pay for.” These are the words of David Helvarg, who joins us in the studio now. David Helvarg is President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the books The War Against the Greens and Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness. He has also written 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and is a contributor to Feeling the Heat: Reports from the Frontlines of Climate Change. We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Hurricane season has begun. What does it mean?

DAVID HELVARG: Well it means that we’re facing another series of disasters like last year, where we saw a million environmental refugees created in this nation. Half of them are still displaced. And as I said, the hurricanes are natural phenomena, but they’re being unnaturally intensified by our failed policies, certainly around climate and fossil fuel fire climate disruption, the impact that has in terms of intensifying category four and five hurricanes, beach erosion, a greater exposure. We’re putting more heat in the system, and heat is the driver of hurricanes.

We have these 30-year natural cycles of greater and lesser hurricane activity that are linked to a one-degree warming in the North Atlantic. You add another degree of warming since 1970 from fossil fuel fire climate change from additional carbon dioxide, and you see tremendous energy. And we saw that last year. We’re projecting more and similar storms in the future.

And we’re not prepared. It’s very disturbing what hasn’t been done in response to last year’s hurricane activity, which is we’ve thrown tens of billions of dollars at contractors in the Gulf region. We haven’t committed dollar — which is to say Congress hasn’t committed dollar one to wetlands restoration, even though there’s a very practical in-place program called Louisiana 2050, which could restore — for $14 billion restore the salt marshes in the bayous of southern Louisiana, which act as natural storm barriers. Every two-and-a-half miles of wetlands reduce storm surge by a foot.

I talked to Mark Davis, who runs Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. He was shocked. He says he’s cynical, but even he expected Congress to begin moving on that. It hasn’t. You know, practical solutions, as I say, the Gulf Restoration Network, which represents groups of ocean activists, coastal activists, environmentalists, social justice groupings throughout the Gulf region, have issued a report on how these natural barriers could be effective in reducing these impacts.

At the same time, Congress approved $23 billion for FEMA to make payments for hurricane claims from last year, without doing anything to reform the system. One of the basic proposals is you shouldn’t have this insurance unless you’re an owner-occupant. A lot of the federal flood insurance is going to second homeowners, to people like where I was at the west end of Dolphin Island. 200 homes blown away, most of them rental units. And 50 of those people were already collecting insurance, our tax money essentially, from the previous year’s hurricane. A million-dollar berm, sand berm that had been built there was blown away. You know, we could just go down the beach with baskets full of $20 bills, throwing them in the water, and be more effective.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, how do you restore the wetlands?

DAVID HELVARG: The flow from the Mississippi. You restore the Mississippi to what it was once. There’s huge amounts of sediments that come down, and historically they were dispersed and actually built up what became the most productive wetlands of the world: the bayous of southern Louisiana.

What happened is the Army Corps of Engineers, doing flood management, basically straightened out the Mississippi, turned it into like a hydraulic speedway, as did the oil industry, which built canals, straight lines all through southern Louisiana, to access their facilities. The result is all that sediment that used to build up land just gets driven out into the deep gulf, and because that sediment is now loaded with heavy petrochemical add-ons with fertilizers, synthetic fertilizing chemicals, all that sediment, instead of building land, goes out and grows a second bloom of algae, that then as it decays, it becomes a massive dead zone, sucks all the oxygen out of the Gulf.

And so, if you put the bends and restore the wetlands and the natural flow of the Mississippi, even with subsidence and sea-level rise, there’s enough sediment flow that you can re-grow the wetlands and bring back some of that diversity. And, of course, in growing it out, you would want to reduce the chemical inputs that we’ve added to industrial agriculture. You want to have clean sediment to build clean and productive wetlands.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, we’re going break, come back and find out what are the major forces working against us. David Helvarg, author of Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Helvarg. The hurricane season has begun. David Helvarg is President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, has written a number of books, including Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, also The War Against the Greens. And I was wondering, you know, when you did this groundbreaking book, War Against the Greens, you talked about the crackdown on environmentalists. Last week, Rush Limbaugh was attacking you on air. Do you think that that kind of attack prevents the kind of discussion that could lead to the solutions?

DAVID HELVARG: Only if you let it. I mean, I think the reality is, is you look at the environmental backlash of the 1990s, and they call themselves the “Wise Use” movement. They were funded and structured by industry. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And who was the Wise Use movement?

DAVID HELVARG: The Wise Use movement was essentially what you call Astroturf, synthetic grassroots activists and militants who opposed environmental regulation, particularly of public lands industries in the West. And by the mid-'90s, you saw this breakdown where a lot of them were funneled into the militia movement. Today you look at the veterans of Wise Use. It's funny. Half of them went on to the militia movement. The other half seem to be high-ranking administration officials. You know, and they’re driving a lot of what’s passing for what they call, you know, “counter-science,” what I call “counter-science.”

I mean, no good science goes unpunished in this administration. So, for example, there are a lot of administration people pushing the idea that climate change wasn’t linked to last year’s hurricanes. In fact, it reflects their inability or unwillingness to hold two thoughts at once, which is there is this natural 30-year cycle that’s been identified of greater and lesser hurricane activity in the Atlantic. At the same time, there’s no question among scientists that the warming, the global warming, of the oceans from fossil fuel fire climate disruption, from adding carbon dioxide and other industrial gases into the atmosphere, is a driver not only of hurricanes, but of coral bleaching, of acidification of the oceans, may even slow down the conveyor belt that drives the Gulf Stream.

AMY GOODMAN: And, David, how serious is the government vacuuming of websites referring to global warming, removing the words from reports out of the EPA?

DAVID HELVARG: Well, you know, we’re at a crisis, a global crisis situation. And we need a popular response, but we also need a governmental response. When we’ve had past global crises like Adolf Hitler or the nuclear balance of terror during the Cold War, we needed government response. Right now, our government’s in denial. The best available science is creating some of the worst imaginable scenarios, and we have a government that fails to respond.

And we know why. I mean, the U.S., you know, administration has traditionally been responsive to business, but never to a single industrial sector. We now have a president — his dad, his vice president, his secretary of state are all veterans of the oil industry, and essentially they’re protecting the 19th century industry that’s causing the problems that we have to deal with.

I mean, it was interesting. Bush appointed a U.S. Ocean Commission, which came down very strongly for environmental protection of our seas. They said the ecological collapse of our oceans is a threat to our national security, our economy and our environment. And yet they’re being ignored. I now have been talking with members of Bush’s commission who have — two of them, Admiral Paul Gaffney, who used to run the Office of Naval Research for the U.S. Navy, and Lillian Barrone, who ran the Port of New York/New Jersey, both wrote an editorial calling for a seaweed revolution, the idea that we’re only going to make the change from the bottom up. We’re only going to, you know, see what we need to see, in terms of climate and pollution and over-fishing, when people understand that all the oceans are a public resource and it belongs to all of us and that we know what the solutions are.

People, a lot of people I talk to, they say, you know, “How can we deal with something like climate change or the collapse of marine wildlife? I’m an individual. I have a family to raise. I have a job.” The reality is we’re having those impacts every day in the way we live our lives. It’s just a question of making a conscious choice, being conscious of how our impacts are affecting the oceans and the seas around us and making the right choices.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the effects of climate change that will soon become apparent?

DAVID HELVARG: Well, I think we’re already in the footprint. We’re already seeing intensified hurricanes. We’re seeing more droughts and historic flooding in certain areas of the world. In terms of the oceans, 70% of the world’s beaches are eroding right now. We’re seeing more category four and five hurricanes since the 1970s. The oceans are more acidic than they’ve been in at least four million years.

And I’ve been to Antarctica and places where — Bill Frasier, who is the lead scientist when I was down there, was saying when he was a graduate student, his professor told him climate change is real, but you’ll never see it your lifetime. He says in the last 20 years he has seen the landscape ecology altered, you know, glaciers retreating, animal species changing places, the collapse of the adelie penguins. And what’s happening to the penguins and the polar bears today is going to be part of all of our lives for as far we can look into the future.

AMY GOODMAN: David Helvarg, why do you refer to “category five foolishness”?

DAVID HELVARG: Because we’re promoting. You know, we’ve reached the stage where, you know, you now say nobody talks about the weather, but everybody is doing something about it, where actually the choices we’re making today are impacting the weather around us. And it’s foolish not to be precautious. It’s foolish not to begin planned retreat from the exposed areas. It’s foolish to have federal flood insurance that subsidizes people to move in harm’s way, that allows people to build second homes on barrier islands. There’s a reason they call them “barrier islands.” I mean, it doesn’t seem to get through to the developers. We should maybe call them “death by drowning islands.” We know how to do it safely. You know, there are developers I know who have built wisely behind the dunes and above hurricane code, and when the hurricanes come, they survive.

And, you know, it’s a moment. You know, crisis also is opportunity. We can turn things around. You know, 150 years ago, some of the leading wealthiest people in this country would have said, “Getting rid of whale oil is insane. It’s the lubricant of the machine age, and it drives our — you know, it lights our finest homes and cities.” Well, we went from whale oil to rock oil. Guess what? The economy expanded. You know, we’re at another moment, where — I’ve been on the oilrigs. They’re very impressive. It’s a heroic period of U.S. maritime history, but it’s obsolete. It’s like being on a whaling ship 150 years ago.

We have to move on from oil. We have this great opportunity to develop new technologies, and not just in terms of entrepreneurs and inventors, but in each of our lives. We can find new ways to live. And what’s interesting, when you do things that help the sea, like eat more organic or vegetarian food or conserve energy or walk more, bike more, instead of relying on personal transportation, cars, the things you do that are going to help us get through the crisis also tend to help your health, help your pocketbook.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the single most important measures that should be taken for New Orleans right now?

DAVID HELVARG: For New Orleans? They’ve moved to an evacuation program that’s going to take all the people out this time. And I think that’s — at this point, good evacuation is essential. I mean, that’s it. And they’ve built the levees back to, you know, pre-Katrina levels of protection. But without those 140 miles of wetlands that used to sit between New Orleans and the sea, there’s not a lot that can be done. People are moving out to the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, to Jefferson Parish. And people are now prepared for an effective evacuation. Beyond that, we have to start looking at how we are going to live in the exposed hurricane zones.

AMY GOODMAN: And of the 50 ways to save the ocean, what would you say are the top five?

DAVID HELVARG: Top one is definitely know that you can have an impact. You know, it’s going back 70 years to what anthropologist Margaret Mead said, you know, “Don’t question that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Nothing else ever has.”

Beyond that, you know, obviously, energy choices, conserving energy, our food choices in terms of using less plastic. You know, plastic is this huge threat to our ocean environment. Even oil spills biodegrade. Plastic doesn’t. It becomes this fine dust that outweighs phytoplankton in the mid-Pacific Gyre six pounds to one.

You know, again, being — voting the coast, voting. Getting engaged as a consumer as a citizen. We talked about vote for those who vote for the coast. And politicians, you can’t completely educate them. They’re like trying to educate a shark. They’re hardwired to money and votes, and if we don’t have the money of the offshore oil industry, the shipping industry, the coastal real estate developers, we have to mobilize what I call that seaweed marine grassroots constituency.

People have to — and I think once you start doing a few things, once you start making choices as a consumer and your lifestyle and begin becoming more active as a citizen, it gets kind of addictive. You know, change is good, and before you know it, you’ve got no time to watch American Idol and reality television. You’re out there changing reality for yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Helvarg, I want to thank you for being with us, author of Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean.

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