While much of the world has reacted with shock and sympathy to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, senior government leaders in Germany warned the United States to expect more natural catastrophes if it did not get serious about global warming.
Katrina was still spinning northward through the United States when Germany's environment minister, Juergen Trittin, wrote a column for the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper blaming President Bush's environmental policies for increasing the risk of killer storms and floods around the world.
"The American president closes his eyes to the economic and human damages that are inflicted on his country and the world economy by natural disasters, like Katrina, through neglected climate protection," Trittin wrote in his opinion piece, which was published Tuesday. "When reason finally reaches the headquarters of the climate polluters, the international community will need to be able to extend a hand with an elaborate proposal for the future of international climate protection. The German government stands ready for this."
Offers of help and moral support from the German government took a day longer to materialize. Wednesday, when the extent of the destruction from Katrina became clearer, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sent a letter of sympathy to Bush.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer declared that the government was "prepared to give any assistance or support to bring this terrible natural disaster and its effects under control."
Neither Schroeder nor Fischer distanced themselves from Trittin's remarks, which were still reverberating Thursday. While many German commentators and newspapers said they would have used more diplomatic language, Trittin's sentiment was widely shared.
"Just as Sept. 11 clearly showed that America is vulnerable, it will likely take a couple more hurricanes of the magnitude of Katrina before America changes its appalling environmental policies," the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper said in an editorial. Reinhard Buetikofer, chairman of the Greens party, which counts Fischer and Trittin as members, called Bush an "eco-reactionary" beholden to oil and nuclear interests.
Karsten Voigt, coordinator of U.S.-German relations at the Foreign Ministry, said the timing of Trittin's remarks was regrettable but the substance was not.
"At this very moment, our solidarity and condolences should be at the forefront," he said in a telephone interview. "Beyond that, it's naturally clear that there will be a discussion at some point about whether the climate change has increased the damage that is related to such hurricanes. In the aftermath, there will be a new debate about origins, causes and solutions."
Many scientists say global warming and pollutants have not affected the number of hurricanes that have struck the United States in recent years, attributing the frequency to natural cyclical patterns. Some researchers, however, say there is evidence that higher atmospheric temperatures over time could make storms more powerful.
A spokesman for Trittin said the environment minister did not mean to be insensitive to the plight of Katrina's victims but would not back down from what he wrote.
"At the time it was written, the dimension of the storm was not known," the spokesman, Michael Schroeren, said in a telephone interview. Referring to Bush, he added: "Even the president did not end his vacation until Wednesday."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.