TCS Daily

Energy and Hurricane Katrina: Poison or Cure?

By Chris Pope - September 18, 2005 12:00 AM

"How ironic that the world's No 1 polluter is now reaping the, 'rewards' that so many have warned would flow." (Jon Snow, Britain's Channel 4 News)

As modern technology has accelerated the diffusion of news, it has hurried the clamor to assign blame. And so it has proved with Hurricane Katrina. Little more than a day after wind and waves crashed down on the people of New Orleans, environmentalists around the world were seizing on the tragedy as evidence of the supposed evils of American energy use.

Although there is no evidence that even the complete cessation of industrial production would have averted the hurricane, this does not seem to have tempered the fervor of global warming alarmists. Demands to "tackle global warming" by more moderate figures may sound benign, but any effective strategy of doing so by further burdening energy use constitutes an attack on our defenses from the forces of nature. Assuming that China and India are also obliging enough to forego developing economically, these unfeasible steps would catastrophically weaken our ability to deal with the resulting effects, without providing the slightest guarantee of pacified meteorological conditions.

Environmentalists often cite the frail situations of low-lying nations such as Bangladesh or isolated Pacific Islands as evidence of the need for abstinence from gas-powered vehicles, but precisely the opposite lesson about industrialization and the threats from natural disasters should be drawn. The main concern does not lie with dynamic economies that use significant amounts of energy, but with those energy-impoverished areas that are more likely to collapse like a house of cards. Far from sheltering poorer nations, energy-use restrictions would hamper the economic development that is their only possible salvation.

Much of the environmental rhetoric regarding carbon emissions and global warming seems to imply that energy consumption is an entirely frivolous activity, or that it is only mindless prejudice that prevents people from adopting easily-available substitutes. President Bush's plea for Americans to "conserve energy" accepts this logic, but ignores the reality. Are families in rural Idaho now supposed to force their kids to walk 20 miles to school? Outside of Washington -- and the offices of publications such as The Economist, which suggested after Katrina that "it would be no bad thing if the Bush administration was suddenly converted to the wisdom of a carbon tax" -- most people understand as common sense that society bears real costs whenever energy prices rise.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina itself. We all lament the fact that the poor were particularly incapacitated and faced significant hurdles in evacuating. But had those critics' demands for higher energy taxes been met before the storm, adapting to the radically altered circumstances generated by Katrina would have proved that much more difficult -- likely forcing more people on the margin to stay behind -- and increased the divergence in the survival rates of rich and poor.

The same is true for the relief effort. Emergency workers and provisions do not arrive by row-boat, but by oil-powered craft, by plane and by road. If oil consumption is the problem, then should they be banned? If it is the solution, then why do we punish them with taxes and regulatory strictures?

It is contradictory to blame America for not being able to afford sufficient defenses and drainage facilities, while simultaneously obstructing the efforts and increasing the costs of constructing them. Diesel pumps will do much of the work to drain the city, in absence of electricity, and the Chinook helicopters required to repair the levees require 1,000 gallons of fuel to fill.

Human ingenuity, industrial technology and fuel resources are the solutions to the problems of New Orleans; futile blame-games and uncritical embrace of global warming alarmism can only impede the many valiant efforts to rebuild, and the energy availability that such activities require. Although nature's fury may be inevitable, our frailty to its whims is not.

Chris Pope is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


TCS Daily Archives