Opinion: Global Warming; Anti-War Protests

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 27, 2005; 1:30 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns on hurricanes and global warming ( Two-for-One Deals ) and the weekend's anti-war protests in Washington, D.C.( Stop, Children, What's That Sound? )

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, folks. I'll be here chatting for the next hour or so, about recent columns -- antiwar protests, global warming, New Orleans and the Gulf -- or anything else you'd like to bring up. (I've spent part of the morning watching former FEMA director Michael Brown try to explain himself at a congressional hearing, and "Brownie" is sure doing a "heckuva job" putting the blame on everybody else.)


Canton, N.Y.: With hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters demonstrating around the country, why has the media barely covered the story?

Eugene Robinson: Well, I don't want to sound like a "homer," but The Post did run its story about the protest at the top of the front page, with big photos and more stories inside. I noticed that some other papers, including one big one in New York, ran the protest inside. I think that was a mistake.


Laurel, Md.: I'm curious about the coverage of the Anti-War rally in The Post. In D.C. there were anywhere from 100-150,000 anti-war demonstrators on Saturday and maybe a few hundred pro-war, pro-Bush demonstrators on Saturday and Sunday.

Why is it The Post and other media outlets insist on giving equal coverage to both sides on everything? Do 400 Pro-Bush demonstrators equal 100,000 anti-war demonstrators in the minds of the media?

Eugene Robinson: That's an interesting question, even if the premise is a bit shaky. The Post ran the big protest on the front page and the subsequent little protest on the Metro page. I think you could still argue that this was too much for a few hundred protesters, but the truth is that the coverage wasn't equal.


Cabin John, Md.: It looks like even a large protest of 100k+ gets little or no coverage in the news unless the protesters are burning cars or wrecking a Starbucks. Can we safely say that these sorts of non-violent demonstrations are no longer effective in grabbing public attention or changing public opinion?

Eugene Robinson: No, I think that mass, non-violent protest is still effective. Anyone who plans any event has to submit to the vagaries of the weather (and the news cycle), and even though this protest got pretty heavy coverage, it would have been heavier if another hurricane hadn't come along.


Centreville, Va.: The fact that you attach such huge importance to the protests helps to clarify why folks on the left are always so mystified when conservatives do well in elections. We'll be generous and say that there were actually 300,000 protestors present, although organizers always vastly inflate their numbers. That means for every 1,000 people in the United States, one showed up to protest. As far as I'm concerned, that makes the whole silly spectacle utterly insignificant. And don't be fooled by the much lower attendance of the pro-war rally; people who support the President's stance are doing such mundane things as working.

Oh, and by the way, Jesse Jackson's presence may make the protest "official" for the activist classes, but for the rest of us it only shows what a sham the whole event is, since Jackson will show up at anything to get his face on TV.

Eugene Robinson: I think that kind of ignores the traditional role that protest has played in this and other societies. When you get up into six figures, in my view, you've made a point.


Houston, Tex.: Why do we blame Bush for the actions or lack of in New Orleans? As you could see on live TV last week, the local government has the first response in a disaster and the safety of it's people. Why don't we blame Nagin? If he were White would he be to blame? Yes our evacuation wasn't perfect, but at least we did try to save as many people as we could, not just leave them there to die. I know you won't discuss this issue because it involves "the race card" but someone needs to.

Eugene Robinson: I'm happy to discuss this issue. In fact, after spending a week in flooded New Orleans, I'm obsessed with this issue. Of course the mayor and the governor could have done a better job. But what on earth do we have FEMA for? Why do we have a Department of Homeland Security? This administration has spent years now telling us we're under threat of attack -- a dirty bomb, a chemical-weapons attack -- and FEMA specifically knew that a direct hit on New Orleans by a 3-plus hurricane would be catastrophic. Where were the evacuation plans? What entity except the federal government could ever effectively manage the kind of evacuation and relief efforts that were needed in New Orleans? Believe me, even a week after the disaster, the local and state authorities were working much more effectively than the hapless feds. It was a shameful performance. We should all be ashamed.


Washington, D.C.: In today's column, you wrote: "How exactly did the unqualified Michael Brown get put in charge of such a crucial agency as the Federal Emergency Management Agency?"

Would you be surprised to know that the Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed him -unanimously- as deputy director of FEMA (Aug. 1, 2002)? (Apparently his prior confirmation made it possible to be elevated to director without another confirmation process in 2003.)

Do you, at all, blame the Democrats for not taking "advise and consent" seriously these days for anything but the abortion views of judicial nominees?

Eugene Robinson: Gee, I thought the administration was trying to claim that the Senate's advise-and-consent power was really nothing more than a formality. There would have been a hue and cry from the Republican majority if Democrats had tried to block Brown. I don't see how you can avoid assigning the responsibility to the administration that nominated him. He had been the head of the International Arabian Horse Association, for heaven's sake. As somebody pointed out, we don't know of a single Arabian horse that died in the hurricane.


San Antonio, Tex.: Kiss of death in the Bush administration: "-insert name, you're doing a heckuva job!"

How much impact--if any--do you think that former FEMA director Michael Brown's testimony on the Hill today will have? Will the buck stop there with Brownie, meaning, should there be more inquiry? Will there be more inquiry? Do you see tearing apart Katrina/Rita mistakes--and the cost of any inquiry--having any positive benefit or impact?

Also, role of the military in natural disasters, given the results are catastrophic enough to warrant additional man/woman power?

Eugene Robinson: I think Brownie's testimony will remind everyone of how outrageously unqualified he was to do a vital job. Beyond that, though, I imagine that the GOP majority on the Hill will block any kind of truly objective inquiry.

Your question about the military is a good one, and I don't really know the answer. The country has a healthy fear of seeing our troops patrolling our streets. On the other hand, some jobs are just too big for any other institution. I think there are ways of establishing a chain of command that will make us comfortable. But I thought this was the kind of thing Homeland Security was supposed to be working out.


Baltimore, Md.: Re: Mike Brown's testimony: Will anyone ask him, "Mr. Brown, why did you accept a position in the federal government for which you had no previous training or qualification?" I would like to think that if I were offered such a position like Deputy Director--and then Director--of a huge emergency management organization, I would turn it down on the grounds that, gee, I have spent my whole life in advertising and PR, so I'd better pass.

Eugene Robinson: I'd like to ask him that question myself. If someone wanted to name me chief surgeon at Georgetown Hospital, I'd be honored but I'd have to decline.


Atlanta, Ga.: Do you think the feds' painstakingly slow response to Katrina will impact the mid-term elections?

Eugene Robinson: Sure hope so.


Arlington, Va.: I read your "Two-for-One Deals" column this morning. I agree with you that the Bush administration ignores scientific data when it's convenient for them to do so. I also agree that there is a consensus on global warming. However, linking global warming and rising sea temperatures to stronger hurricanes is far from conclusive. You failed to mention criticism of the studies from NOAA. Hurricane cycles can be decades long. It's possible that we have entered a new cycle and that global warming has little or nothing to do with an increase in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Another criticism of the recent studies is that they are using five-year periods to analyze this phenomenon. With such a short period of analysis, you could expect a certain amount of random fluctuation in severe hurricanes. One five-year period showing an increase in severe hurricanes can hardly be called a trend. Even with these caveats in mind, what will need to happen for Republicans to take global warming seriously?

Eugene Robinson: The writer is referring to a column that ran last Sunday, I believe, about new studies that indicate warming sea temperatures have led to more-intense hurricanes, like Katrina and Rita. I urge you to look at the studies, which were published in the journals Science and Nature. The one in Science is quite accessible and hard to quibble with. It's not just comparing one five-year period with another, it looks at a 35-year span and the trend line is steadily upwards in terms of the number of really intense, category 4 or 5 hurricanes. I found it convincing on that point.

As far as what it will take to get Republicans to pay attention to global warming, if the destruction of Trent Lott's house didn't do it, I don't know what will.


Blacksburg, Va.: One thing that really annoys me is when reporters talk about global warming by giving equal treatment to 'both sides'-- the 99.9% of scientists who believe it exists and the .1% of scientists (usually financed by the oil companies) who say it doesn't.

Are reporters so worried about bias that they distort the truth?

Eugene Robinson: There is a convention in the news business that in order to be "balanced" or "objective," it's necessary to report "both sides" of every question. The problem is, some questions have more than two sides, and some have only one. I think the tradition is valid when there is, say, a sizeable minority of scientists who dispute the majority view. That's not the case in global warming -- though there is a reasonable argument that atmospheric science is not entirely understood by anyone at present.


Princeton, N.J.: Why aren't you guys (questioners) talking about global warming? Although it has not reached the point where it affects the frequency of hurricanes, I'll bet you any tropical storm that wanders into the Gulf will become a cat 4 or 5 because of the extraordinary high temps there. I'll agree our "dull normal" president is probably doing his best when it comes to science (stem cells, natural design, etc.), but come on , folks, can't we get a smart president who at least speaks one language? And I ain't disassembling you about dat!

Eugene Robinson: That's what I worry about -- that any little garden-variety hurricane that gets in there will turn into a monster. In reality, it won't happen every single time. But after reading those new studies, I'm convinced it's going to happen a lot more frequently. If we don't take this into account in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we're idiots -- and we'll be sorry when all the new houses and casinos and nudie bars that we build get washed away in a few years.


Washington, D.C.: The constant reference to the Arabian Horse experience is a cheap shot. First of all, he was a lawyer, not a jockey. Second, he was originally brought into FEMA as a lawyer (general counsel), not as an experienced emergency response official. He gained that experience as part of FEMA, where he was first elevated to deputy director, and then to director. You should at least acknowledge that his real background, while not the material for a snippy sound-bite, is more extensive than a horse trainer.

Eugene Robinson: His performance speaks for itself. I saw him in action in Baton Rouge, "directing" the relief efforts, and it was not pretty. My impression was that when effective action finally got organized, it was military officers and local officials who got together and just ignored whatever the federal and state bureaucrats were saying and went out and did the job on their own initiative.


Centreville, Va.: I have a memo to the baby boomers out there: just because you see the world a certain way doesn't the mean the rest of us do. Ergo, all wars are not Vietnam. And seeing Joan Baez protesting a war might feel like old home week at the love-in to you, but the rest of us either don't know who she is or don't care, or both. It's nice that you get to feel good about how you think you stopped a war, but please, can we look to the future just a little here?

Eugene Robinson: I interrupt the disaster/global warming string to say: C'mon, don't bum us out. We boomers are approaching our dotage, and it's nice to revisit our youth. Besides, there are still an awful lot of us.

Seriously, sometimes the future does look a little like the past. It did on Saturday.


Woodbridge, Va.: Have you heard anything about some hurricane victims spending their government debit cards on $800 designer handbags? I've heard that a couple of times now. So much for my taxpayer generosity.

Eugene Robinson: I heard one report of one such purchase, but I haven't seen it pinned down and it could be apocryphal. There are always one or two exceptions, but I'm confident the evacuees are spending money on things like food, shelter and clothing.


Washington, D.C.: The NO papers are reporting that most of the claims of murder, rape and shootings were wild exaggerations. Do you think the politicians who made these claims and the media who passed these falsehoods on as the truth owe everyone an apology?

Eugene Robinson: I saw that fascinating story in the New Orleans Times Picayune (nola.com). For those who haven't, the piece reported that all those reports of murder and mayhem in the Superdome, the convention center and throughout the city were essentially wrong. The city now believes there were exactly four homicides in New Orleans the week after the flood -- which is just what New Orleans sees in an average week. There were no bodies stacked like cordwood in the Dome or the convention center. When I was in New Orleans, evacuees told me that most of the "sniping" was actually people firing their guns to try to get somebody to notice that they were still stranded on a roof or in an attic. I think the good people of New Orleans are owed an apology.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi!

What in the world is going on?

I keep reading in editorials that there is no way to evacuate a large city.

What are we supposed to do in N.Y. or D.C. in case we need to evacuate? Take subways/metro? Hail a taxi? Are we then going to be blamed like the citizens and local leaders of Louisiana for not being prepared?

And, why aren't reporters all over local leaders in their respective areas, grilling them about emergency planning? If they have been, what has been the D.C. mayor's response to the grilling, for example?

I may sound angry, but I'm not. I am scared sheetless that some disaster strikes Manhattan while I am across the river in Jersey City, and due to poor planning I am stuck, separated from my family and without a safe place to go. The response to Katrina and Rita has scared me more than 9/11 ever did.

Eugene Robinson: I'm with you, and so are a lot of people I know. Look, I know it's hard to evacuate a major city. Houston was pretty organized in the way it tried to evacuate, and the city had four days' notice that Rita was on the way, and still there was 12-hour gridlock on the freeways. But there MUST be a better way, and if there isn't, then we have to invent one. Michael Chertoff, please, get to work on this.


New York, N.Y.: Should we do a flip? Say if Mr. Brown was African American or a person of colour. Do you think he'd be re-hired as a consultant after a disastrous performance as Undersecretary (FEMA)?

I do agree that people should be held accountable as warranted on all levels.

But it does make one wonder how many funds were misspent in DHS or directed to other priorities (and as you know in government, everything is considered a priority).

Eugene Robinson: I really wonder what DHS has been doing. Frankly, I think that under its former director, Tom Ridge, the answer is: not much. At least Chertoff has tried to impose some sense of order and priorities -- unfortunately they turned out to be the wrong priorities, or at least his list was incomplete in that it didn't include hurricanes, but I respect the effort. Now the task is clear. We have to have workable systems for evacuation and relief in major cities.


Sanibel, Fla.: NO one that I have read in the press that knows anything about storms says anything about global warming affecting the strength of the hurricanes. Read Drudge for some examples of older hurricanes and their strength. Most feel we are in a 20 something year cycle that was active in the 50s and 60s and not so active in the 70s and 80s (during your so called "global warming" increases). We are now in an active cycle again. Most places get hit every 75 to 100 years with a big one. SW Florida, Texas etc. The normal tracks are always in danger, like the northern Gulf coast. Also, I wish the news people would stop lumping all of the Gulf Coast together. It hurts our tourism on the SW Florida coast when they do that.

Eugene Robinson: Well, those two new studies I keep mentioning are by people who know a lot about storms, and they say that higher sea-surface temperatures are increasing the intensity of hurricanes. They don't say WHY the sea-surface temperatures are rising, but there are other studies that attribute this increase to global warming. Look, if there were a yearly average of 10 category 4 or 5 hurricanes anywhere in the world 30 years ago, and an average of 18 now, and the upward trend is basically a continuous line, you've got to suspect that something is going on. If you get trapped in your attic by a flood, you don't much care whether it's carbon emissions or a natural cycle.


Wilmington, N.C.: 1. Maybe with Houston's example, some may better appreciate the relative success in NO of getting 80% out in 2 days

2. The real race issue: In light of aftermath reports of relatively low confirmed acts of violence, would authorities have perceived as much threat from a largely white trapped population?

Eugene Robinson: 1. I agree.

2. No, they wouldn't have perceived the same threat.


Potomac, Md.: Are there any official data on the number of people who left New Orleans? Which neighborhoods are they from? How many intend to come back? How many have a home to come back to? It seems to me that we must know all these factors before planning the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Eugene Robinson: These are among the great unanswered questions. I know that The Post and other news organizations will be trying to answer them in the coming weeks and months. I keep remembering a group of evacuees from the Lower Ninth Ward that I met at the New Orleans airport. They were about to be flown out to San Antonio. Are they still there? Do they plan to come back? This will be a fascinating story for a long, long time.


Eugene Robinson: My time is up. Thanks for participating, and see you next time.


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