When Ignorance Isn't Bliss

Newsweek recently detailed how ExxonMobil, the oil lobby, and other earth-plundering apologists spend millions of dollars to keep us ignorant on global warming. Time reported that in the rebuilding of New Orleans, "environmental ignorance is setting up the city for another catastrophe."

America's catastrophic ignorance continues.

Time said the US Army Corps of Engineers understands that protecting New Orleans from hurricanes like Katrina or worse will require not just bigger and stronger levees. It also means preserving and restoring marshes, swamps, and barrier islands that offer natural protection against winds and high water.

"But for all the talk about restoring wetlands," Time wrote, "almost every dime of the $7 billion the Corps has received since Katrina is going to traditional engineering: huge structures designed to control rather than preserve nature."

On global warming, which is predicted to pound our coasts with a higher percentage of Katrina-like storms, ExxonMobil pumped $19 million into conservative causes dedicated to pooh-poohing the science. Those causes paid tens of thousands of dollars to those who doubt climate change. In 2003, Republican Party consultant Frank Luntz wrote a memo saying, "You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."

This worked, even though, as Newsweek wrote, "few of the experts did empirical research of their own."

The two-decade onslaught on science and sanity resulted in the Clinton White House being neutralized and enabled the outright denial of the Bush administration, which edited and deleted key portions of government reports linking human greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.

Even with Democrats now in control, Congress still plays games with fuel economy. The Senate's new energy bill would raise fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The House bill has no new standards because of the auto lobby and key Democratic auto hacks such as Representative John Dingell of Michigan. Optimists hope to still get new standards when the two bills go to conference committee.

The most important measure of the onslaught is American ambivalence. Even though 600 scientists from 40 countries concluded this year that global warming is "unequivocal," Newsweek pollsters found that still less than half of Americans -- 46 percent -- say climate change is being felt today. Less than half of Americans support requiring much more fuel and energy efficient vehicles and appliances. In the best dreams of the pooh-pooh lobby, 42 percent of Americans say "there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming."

In New Orleans, a bipartisan nightmare is being recreated. Bush was castigated around the globe for his response to Katrina. But US Senators Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, proposed pork-barrel reconstruction projects backed in part by the oil lobby. Some projects were already judged to be a waste of money. Vitter (who has other problems in the escort scandal in Washington) wanted timber companies to be allowed to keep slashing cypress swamps.

Levees are being so poorly thought out that they risk the further destruction of marshes or rendering them useless against storms. Louisiana State University hurricane researcher Ivor van Heerden said some of the levees are "absolutely screwy, the exact opposite of what we need."

The head of the state's science review team, LSU ecologist Robert Twilley, told Time, "My great fear is that we're going to cut off the coast with barriers, just like we did to the river. I'd hate for that to be my legacy."

The planned ignorance of the oil lobby and the ignorant planning in New Orleans make it clear that too few people care whether the nation cares about its legacy. In the Newsweek poll, 42 percent of Americans say the press "exaggerates the threat of climate change." In New Orleans, the devastation and displacement in that precarious aqualand has not made many people rethink our exaggerated entitlement to crowd the coasts with development.

Despite Katrina, Time reminds us that the United States still "has no water-resources policy." The Army Corps of Engineers remains funded by individual congressional earmarks, regardless of whether any specific project is worthwhile. Gerry Galloway, president of the American Water Resources Association, told the magazine, "It's a sinister system. Water is a national security issue, but we treat it like the Wild West."

The oil lobby tells us to ignore the swamping of our planet. In New Orleans, we are building to be swamped again. America apparently needs a more direct hit than even Katrina to wake up to the catastrophe of ignorance.

(c) Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe

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