ON ONE SIDE are those who openly blame the Bush administration for hurricanes Rita and Katrina: "The American president has closed his eyes to the economic and human damage that . . . disasters caused by a lack of climate protection measures . . . can visit on his country," said Germany's environment minister. On the other side are those in the administration who have been telling the country for five years that even if climate change is taking place, which they doubt, there isn't much that can or should be done about it.
The first claim -- that if only President Bush had signed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, there wouldn't be so many hurricanes -- is absurd. Not only did the carbon dioxide emissions that are thought to cause global warming begin accumulating at the start of the Industrial Revolution -- making it hard to blame Mr. Bush for their impact -- the Kyoto treaty itself isn't even intended to lower emissions, just slow their growth. More important, most climate scientists agree that it is impossible to explain the weather in a single place or at a single time as a manifestation of climate change. Atlantic hurricanes appear to come in cycles: There were more in the 1940s and 1950s, fewer in the 1970s and 1980s. Although annual numbers have been climbing since 1995, they could go down again. Relatively little is known about these patterns, because they have been fully observable only since the invention of satellite photography. It is simply not possible to link their growing numbers directly to climate change.
But the alternative claim -- that climate change has nothing to do with this -- isn't exactly accurate, either. As a recent article in Science points out, it is possible that global warming has raised ocean temperatures, therefore increasing the intensity, if not the frequency, of hurricanes. Rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps don't affect hurricanes directly, but they do mean that hurricanes do more damage to coastlines, not only along the Gulf of Mexico but also on the East Coast, where beach erosion is a major problem. Whether or not global climate change is causing hurricanes, in other words, it may be helping to increase their impact.
There's no excusing the Bush administration's inattention to the challenge of climate change. But it also isn't the only, or even the chief, environmental threat to the future of human habitation in the Mississippi Delta. After all, the worst environmental damage on the Gulf Coast has been caused not by global warming but by the destruction of coastal wetlands -- through cultivation, pollution and sinkage caused by oil production -- that used to absorb storm surges before they reached human settlements. While there are good reasons for pursuing international cooperation on climate change, there is also reason to focus attention on protecting, preserving and ultimately restoring the wetlands.