We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Mother Nature seems to be on a tear of late.

Massive tornadoes have swept through a number of Midwestern and Southern communities, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri over the weekend killed at least 116 people, making it the deadliest twister in American history. In an normal year, the US averages about 65 tornado-related deaths. This year, we’ve already topped 500, and tornado season has only just begun.

This month has also seen historic flooding on the Mississippi River, with peak water levels surpassing the record set during the Great Flood of 1927. These water levels would have been even higher if the US Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t opened the Morganza Spillway. This allowed flood waters to be diverted away from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but inundated 3,000 square miles of Cajun country (and 25,000 homes) in the process.

While it is tempting to blame Mother Nature for these miseries, in many ways these are man-made disasters. Consider, for example, the Mississippi flood. Hydrologists have been predicting a disaster of this magnitude for decades, and attribute it to misguided Pick-Sloan Plan.

The Pick-Sloan Plan, also known as the Missouri River Basin Project, was an ambitious attempt to control the waters of the Missouri River. Authorized by Congress as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, it funded the construction of seven massive dams on the Missouri River, and 80 smaller dams on tributaries. But it failed to consider the long-term impact of these dams on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

The Missouri River has long been nicknamed the “Big Muddy.” It carries the highest silt load of any major river in the US. Before the Missouri was dammed, much of this silt was carried downriver and deposited in the Mississippi Delta, helping fertilize the once-bountiful fisheries in that region and building and replenishing the offshore barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of the silt carried by the “Big Muddy” no longer makes it to the Delta. Instead, it gets trapped by the dams. The build-up of silt behind these dams has several consequences. The offshore barrier islands that protect New Orleans from violent Gulf storms are no longer replenished. Most are now gone, leaving this region even more vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina-like disasters.

The build-up of silt also reduces the capacity of these dams to store water. The Garrison Dam in North Dakota is so obstructed by silt that it is nearly useless. During years of heavy rain or snowmelt, the flood waters this dam is designed to contain has only one place to go: downstream into an already overflowing Mississippi.

These problems were foreseen. Then-Commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Major General Lytle Brown, argued against the Pick-Sloan Plan for these very reasons. Following the Missouri River Floods of 1943, however, politicians chose to focus on the short-term problem of periodic river flooding without considering the long-term consequences of the Pick-Sloan Plan. We will be dealing with these consequences for years to come.

Worse yet, we apparently haven’t learned our lesson. We cannot attribute a single event like the Joplin tornado to global warming, but once rare events like record floods, massive droughts, and Category-5 hurricanes are becoming commonplace. Despite this, global warming-skeptics in Congress have repeatedly blocked climate change legislation, claiming that the costs cannot be justified during an economic downturn.

These skeptics may be right. Climate change may not be the result of human activity, despite the fact that most scientists believe that global warming is real. But can we afford the consequences if these skeptics are wrong?

If left unchecked, it is estimated that the economic impact of climate change will cost US taxpayers almost $2 trillion dollars annually by the next century. By investing a few billion dollars in clean energy technologies now, perhaps offset by ending tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies, we might be able avoid paying these trillions in future.

Instead, our leaders have chosen to be penny-wise but pound-foolish. Congress has targeted clean-energy programs in order to achieve short-term economic gains. What they haven’t  considered is the long-term economic and personal costs should climate change prove to be real.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on May 26, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership at Union Graduate College and Director of the Bioethics Program of Union Graduate College-Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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