2005 will be remembered as a year of natural disasters. We don’t need to recite statistics in an anchorman’s heavy voice to know the meaning of Katrina and La Conchita.
But when it comes to natural disasters, the question today is: How natural was the 2005 hurricane season? And what role, if any, did global warming play in the devastating storms that hit Ventura County in January 2005?
For years climatologists have been warning Californians that global warming will likely result in a paradoxical combination of extremes: more “droughtiness” interrupted by wetter, stronger storms. But still, those same climatologists, led by outspoken Bill Patzert of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, doubt that this year’s catastrophic rains should be blamed on a changing climate, pointing out that, to date, California has warmed only slightly and adding that this year’s strange pattern has been observed once before, in 1889-1890.
For years, experts have thrown cold water on the idea of a connection between small increases in temperatures in ocean waters and hurricanes because very complex forces govern the creation of these storms. But a year ago, a study by Kerry Emmanuel of MIT found a 50 percent increase in wind speed in recent hurricanes. Emmanuel wrote that “the large upswing in the last decade is unprecedented, and probably reflects the effects of global warming.” Although Emmanuel and other scientists stress that no single storm, including Katrina, can be blamed on global warming, the consensus view now is that, most likely, hurricanes will become stronger and more dangerous, although not necessarily more numerous.
Nonetheless, there was good news in the environment this year, as well. The envelope please …
Solutions for CO2: Solutions to the carbon emissions crisis came from surprising places this year. The Bush administration offered a 10-year plan to build a no-emissions coal plant called Futurgen. Prominent environmentalists (such as Stewart Brand) came out in favor of nuclear power. And Princeton professor Rob Socolow offered a plan using existing technology to stabilize emissions, the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, which was backed by The Economist.
Hybrids soar: Driving a hybrid car is generally considered to be the most useful action an individual American can take to reduce carbon emissions. In 2005, high gas prices and new models more than doubled hybrid sales, to 200,000.
GOP congressmen back down: GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter, who proposed turning Santa Rosa Island (in the Channel Islands National Park) over to the military as a hunting preserve, withdrew the proposal in the face of opposition from the Parks Service, Democrats, environmentalists and the military. Similarly, Richard Pombo withdrew his plan to sell public lands for mining claims in the face of widespread opposition, especially from Republican Senators.
Storm relents: On Jan. 10, 2005, the strongest storm to hit Ventura County since l969 unexpectedly relented. The tapering off that morning surprised experts; according to a presentation meteorologist Camille Sears gave in Ojai, the storm could have brought as much as 20 more inches of rain.
Puretec closes: An industrial water treatment plant operated by Puretec closed in Ventura after years of controversy, at least one toxic spill and the threat of a lawsuit from the Ventura Coastkeeper group.
New campground: Years ago, the Forest Service closed the popular Lion Campground by the Sespe, off Hwy 33, north of Ojai, so as not to threaten the Arroyo Toad, but has redesigned and renovated the trailhead area, now called Piedra Blanca. The agency also plans to reopen an abandoned campground nearby, close to the Rose Valley falls.
Climate change a celebrity: According to Matthew Nisbet, who ranks the attention the media gives to issues, climate change was fifth on the list in 2005, behind Iraq, Social Security, abortion and the pope, but ahead of Tom DeLay, the CIA leak scandal and the Super Bowl …
Washington refuses to talk: Despite pressure from many nations and international corporations (such as Chevron and Swiss Reinsurance), the Bush administration walked out of talks in Montreal aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
General Motors stumbles: In January, GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz derided Toyota’s $800 million investment in hybrids as an “advertising expense.” By December, industry observers (such as BusinessWeek) were warning that GM’s financial losses might force bankruptcy, a bail-out from Washington, or might bring a buy-out offer … from Toyota.
Endangered Species Act endangered: GOP Congressman Richard Pombo’s initiative to gut the Endangered Species Act passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.
The EPA gives up: The so-called Environmental Protection Agency revealed plans to gut the Toxic Release Inventory, a long-standing measure requiring industry to notify the public when toxins are released. The level for notification will be raised to 10 times what is now required; provisions regarding lead and mercury will be dropped; and reports will be issued every other year, instead of annually.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Despite threats of a Democratic filibuster and opposition from moderate House Republicans, the GOP has almost pushed through a measure to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Preservation a low priority in national parks: Paul Hoffman, a former Dick Cheney staffer, now oversees the parks service for the interior department, and is rewriting regulations to empower motorized recreation and profit over preservation of public lands. Hoffman is an intimidator and promises those who oppose him that “heads will roll.”
Two “smoking guns” on climate change: In April, James Hansen, widely considered the most reputable climatologist in the country, released a study of global ocean temperatures at various depths, 10 years in the works, that he termed a “smoking gun”—proof of human-caused global warming. In November, Nature published a study showing a 30 percent weakening of the ocean recirculation system known as the Gulf Stream, which another highly regarded expert, Michael Schlesinger, also called a “smoking gun.”
White House official rewrites science: White House lawyer Philip Cooney, caught rewriting scientific reports on global warming, was forced to resign in June. The next business day he was hired by ExxonMobil.
21st-century Nero: As Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, an oblivious President Bush clowned around on a stage in San Diego, pretending to play guitar with country-western crooner Mark Willis.
Hummer sales crash: Although GM claims that the new model H3 Hummer is selling well, sales of older 8,000-pound, 12-mpg vehicles are down at least 25 percent. A blogger (www.themessthatgreenspanmade.blogspot.com) who has looked at inventory records for a dealer in Thousand Oaks says sales are crashing, with a six-month supply available. But wait … is this a bad thing?
Killing the (scientific) messenger: Irritated by the Fish Passage Center, a tiny agency set up two decades ago in Portland to document salmon runs, Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, cut its funding out of the budget, pleasing one of his biggest contributors, the electric utility industry, which previously dubbed him “Legislator of the Year.”
Town threatened with God’s wrath: After Dover, Pa. citizens voted eight members of the school board out of office last month for requiring biology teachers to instruct high school students in “intelligent design,” Pat Robertson warned the town that “if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city.”