Hurricane Katrina made author and activist Mike Tidwell famous. His 2003 book, Bayou Farewell, predicted a super-sized hurricane would wreak havoc on Louisiana. So, when Katrina swept over New Orleans just two years later, he was heralded as a prophet.
Tidwell may have been one of the few journalists who saw Katrina coming as early as 2003, but he’ll adamantly deny the prophet label, claiming signs were obvious to anyone who bothered to look. Still, now the much sought-after expert, Tidwell continues to provide insight into the debate over natural disasters.
In his most recent book, The Ravaging Tide, Tidwell warns of another imminent Katrina in our future and that devastating hurricanes will become commonplace near Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other coastal cities if global warming is not stemmed immediately. He claims levees and precautions as we know them will be no match for the ferocity of the next decade’s storms, linking Katrina with global warming and man-made dams and channels.
Katrina’s origin, he writes, lies in the damming of the Mississippi River. Historically, the Mississippi transported rich silt as she flowed from the north to the Gulf of Mexico. That silt, deposited off the Louisiana coast, formed hundreds of barrier islands that acted as speed bumps to hurricanes, slowing them down and reducing their severity.
But after the river was dammed, that silt stopped flowing and Louisiana’s hundreds of barrier islands slowly succumbed to erosion from the Gulf. With no barriers and a nice, deep trench of warm water leading directly into the port of New Orleans, Katrina had her welcome mat.
Mother Jones spoke to Tidwell last month from his 100 percent wind-powered office at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Maryland-based grassroots nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about global warming issues and their impact on the surrounding area. Tidwell knows it’s time for action. He says the time for talking has long since passed.
Mother Jones: In your book, you listed a plethora of warnings that a Katrina-sized disaster was coming, yet Bush and his administration willingly ignored them. Can you explain some reasons why?
Mike Tidwell: If you look forward or you look back, you see a connection between rising sea surface temperatures and observed hurricane activity as well as predicted hurricane activity moving forward. The Bush administration, however, continues to say that the recent uptick in hurricane activity is part of a natural cycle just as they suggest that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9-11. They’ll say it as long as they think someone will listen to it.
MJ: So would it suffice it to say that you don’t think the government is taking the appropriate steps now to avoid a similar, Katrina-like catastrophe?
MT: The national government is criminally absent at all levels of policy discussions relating to climate change. In respect to hurricanes, this administration ought to, at a minimum, stop saying that the hurricane seasons of ’04 and ’05 were part of a natural cycle. There’s no evidence for it, there’s no data, and there’s no scientific consensus.
Take a look at Florida, the state that takes one-third of all hurricanes that hit the U.S. Governor Charlie Crist is going to have an emergency summit next week on global warming with coastal governors. He’s looking at the whole insurance disaster that’s happening in Florida. Outside of Florida, there’s almost no discussion about the fact that Florida’s economy is about to collapse under the weight of unaffordable insurance premiums driven by hurricane activity. The state has said to everyone who lives in Florida, “If you can’t get insurance from the big insurance companies, we will insure you. We will be the insurer of last resort.” The have put aside a billion dollars for that, and everyone knows that a billion dollars would barely cover a Category 2 hurricane.
The climate is changing and the insurance companies are refusing to put their capital at risk. You know, Allstate Insurance won’t, in my home state of Maryland, issue a new policy to people in coastal Maryland because they’ve done their own independent review of the climate science and they’ve drawn the conclusion that hurricanes are getting bigger because of global warming. Allstate does not want to put their capital at risk in areas affected by these hurricanes. This is happening in Virginia and in parts of New York State. They shouldn’t be called “Allstate” anymore; they should be called “Somestates.”
MJ: We’ve been talking a lot about Florida, but most of your book is based on Louisiana. Has there been an attempt to rebuild the barrier islands or otherwise restore wetlands in post-Katrina reconstruction?
MT: No, there’s been no meaningful new program on the ground to rebuild the barriers and wetlands in Southern Louisiana on the scale that’s necessary. It’s amazing how long it has taken to get a $7 billion program to adequately rebuild the levees of New Orleans, much less to rebuild the barrier islands and wetlands. The Army Corps and the Bush Administration have not revealed through their actions any serious commitment to treating the disease that led to Katrina and Rita being so catastrophic. The disease is catastrophic land loss that allows the hurricanes to come so far inland, whereas before, the natural speed bumps of barrier islands and wetlands slowed these hurricanes down.
MJ: In the book, you focus mainly on the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coasts. Have you done any research on what the West Coast—cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles—can expect in coming years from global warming, especially in sea level rise?
MT: I do know that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)]’s third assessment report in 2001 and the fourth IPCC assessment report in 2007 flag the serious impacts on coastal communities, natural and human, on the West Coast of the United States. Those impacts include erosion, especially along the hard coast of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, where you have steep cliff-like shorelines being seriously affected by erosion and mudslides and rising sea levels. And then you also have the flooding of sensitive ecosystems, in a lot of the bays and estuaries along the West Coast with a lot of effects on wetlands and estuarine ecosystems.
MJ: One part of your book I really enjoyed was your discussion of your home and the incredible environmental and fiscal savings you were able to reap with a small investment. Do you have any suggestions for what people who don’t own their own homes and are unable to install a corn-fed heating system like you did can do to limit their effect on global warming?
MT: I had the great writer Bill McKibben, who wrote the book The End of Nature in 1989, which brought so many of us into the climate movement, on my radio show in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, and I said, “Bill, you know the zeitgeist has really changed on global warming, people are really paying attention now, it’s really different than just two years ago, what do you think triggered it?” He said, “Katrina opened the door and Al Gore walked through it.” And I think he’s right. There are a lot of stories now in Newsweek, the Washington Post, and in the network news; all of them adequately described the urgency, the alarm, and the appalling quickness with which climate change is happening.
The problem is, at the end of almost all of these media pieces, there’s a small section that says, “And here are three things that you can do to change global warming: change three light bulbs, carpool one day a month and give up meat one day a year.” They’re so ridiculously out of proportion to the scale of the problem that was just described in the piece that people do one of two things. They say, “Well if me changing three light bulbs will stop global warming, then global warming isn’t that big a problem to begin with.” Or they say, “Wow, if you’re right, and global warming is a huge problem, I know that me changing three light bulbs isn’t going to stop it, so I’m not going to do anything.”
MJ: So, what should people do?
MT: People should do the best they can. They should change some light bulbs and get a hybrid the next time they buy a car, but we will never solve the global warming problem with those voluntary changes; we just don’t have time. We need people to get political.
MJ: It’s pretty clear the Bush Administration is not going to be friendly toward those changes, so looking toward 2008, who are the most ecologically aware candidates?
MT: When you look at the list of Democrats and Republicans running for president, and you realize that we have less than 10 years to solve the problem of global warming, you realize that one of those people on that list has to be our Churchill, has to be our Truman.
So when I look at these candidates, and I say, who is our Churchill? I don’t see many. I think John Edwards gets it. He went to New Orleans to launch his candidacy, which counted a lot with me. He talks about poverty and peace wherever he goes, and for me, that is a big deal, and he talks about energy and global warming in the way that I believe it needs to be discussed. I see John Edwards as a guy who may match the extraordinary demands that history is going to put on the next president.
MJ: I saw something the other day and was interested in getting your response. China just overtook the United States in terms of being the #1 emitter of carbon dioxide. Even if the U.S. does radically change its direction, will it matter overall if developing countries like China and India are doubling their output?
MT: China will never seriously reduce its emissions until the U.S. does, and why should they? We’re responsible for most of the global warming pollution that’s in the sky right now, not China. China has only recently become a big contributor to global warming and on a per capita basis, they emit 1/8 the greenhouse gases that we do. China is a nation trying to provide clean water and electricity to its people, and it’s emitting carbon dioxide as a process of providing clean water and basic electricity for its people.
We’re emitting carbon dioxide so we can have Hummers, SUVs, and second homes. At some point, you have to say what’s fair and what’s not fair. The U.S. should take the lead and until we get serious, no developing nation is going to do it. Once we dramatically and seriously commit to carbon reduction, then we have to be all over China and India. We have a lot of leverage over these countries, moral and economic, but only if we go first.
MJ: In your book, you mention how busy Americans are. So if people were to take only one thing away from the book, what should it be?
MT: People who still think this is a 100-year problem requiring a 100-year solution are not paying attention. We have one more chance. If we don’t have landmark legislation by 2011, then we’re going to lose our climate. The major legislation has to be passed in 2009, 2010, 2011, and the major sweeping technological and behavioral changes required to save our climate have to be implemented by 2014, 2015, or it’s over.
It’s just over.
There’s no second part, there’s no phase two, there’s no phase three. It’s either that happens or we’re done with this climate. This climate that the ancient Egyptians lived in and the Greeks lived in, and the Romans, Jesus Christ, Shakespeare, and that you and I were born into, this climate is going to vanish. We won’t be growing wheat in Kansas and Florida will be a series of islands. So we have no time. It’s now or never.