How many killer hurricanes will it take before America gets serious about global warming? It’s hard to imagine a more clear-cut wake-up call than Hurricane Katrina; environmentally speaking, it was nearly the perfect storm. In a single catastrophic event, it brought together the most urgent environmental problem of our time–global warming–with the most telling but least acknowledged environmental truth: When the bill for our collective behavior comes due, it is invariably the nonwhite, nonaffluent members of society who pay a disproportionate share. And who said Mother Nature has no sense of irony? Katrina (and then Rita) struck at a major production site for America’s oil and natural gas–the two carbon-based fuels that, along with coal, help drive global warming.
What’s more, Katrina’s primary target already ranked as the most environmentally ravaged state in the union. Louisiana is home to “Cancer Alley,” a 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that contains the greatest concentration of petrochemical factories in the United States. Pollution from those factories has punished nearby communities–again, mainly poor and black–for decades, as Steve Lerner documented in his recent book Diamond. This pollution has also drained into the Mississippi River, where it joins fertilizer and pesticide runoff from millions of acres of Midwestern farmland to flow into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a massive “dead zone” off the Louisiana coast–1,400 square miles of ocean floor as bereft of life as an Arizona desert. The dead zone would be smaller except that Louisiana, like America as a whole, has lost a third of its coastal wetlands to economic development. Wetlands filter out impurities, much as the liver does for the human body. They also perform a second vital ecosystem function, acting as buffers that absorb and diminish the giant waves that hurricanes generate before they strike inland. Louisiana’s loss of wetlands helps explain why the floods Katrina unleashed ended up overrunning 466 chemical factories, thirty-one Superfund sites and 500 sewage treatment plants, according to the Times-Picayune and the Houston Chronicle, leaving behind a toxic soup whose long-term health effects are incalculable.
Despite these horrors some leading environmentalists see a potential silver lining in Katrina: They believe it may finally awaken the United States from its environmental complacency, especially about global warming. “Sea-level rise and increased storm intensity are no longer abstract, long-term issues but are associated with horrific pictures seen on television every evening,” says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute.
Yes, the Bush Administration and its right-wing allies will continue to deny that global warming exists and resist cutting carbon emissions. But global warming foot-draggers have succeeded in the past largely because the public was confused about whether the problem really existed. That confusion was encouraged by the mainstream media, which in the name of journalistic “balance” gave equal treatment to global warming skeptics and proponents alike, even though the skeptics represented a tiny fringe of scientific opinion and often were funded by companies with a financial interest in discrediting global warming. Katrina, however, may mark a turning point for the media as well as the public.