What did global warming have to do with the recent catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean? Not a damn thing.
Global warming is an atmospheric phenomenon caused by a buildup of airborne greenhouse gases, and though it's expected to increase the frequency and severity of any number of natural disasters, earthquakes -- which are triggered by shifting tectonic plates -- are not among them. In fact, Muckraker could not find one creditable (or, hell, even noncreditable) scientist or environmentalist claiming a causal relationship between climate change and the tsunami.
But you wouldn't know that from listening to the global-warming skeptics who see green conspiracies everywhere they look.
"I am appalled that environmentalists are trying to ride on the backs of 160,000 dead people to push their global-warming agenda without any factual basis," Pat Michaels told Muckraker. This Cato Institute scholar and author of "Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media" made similarly bizarre comments in a press release he put out at the end of December. Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other right-wing flat-earthers have echoed his accusations.
These unfounded rumors have even spread Down Under. "The earthquake and tsunami apparently had something to do with global warming, environmentalists say, caused of course by greedy American motorists," wrote Gerard Baker in his column for the Australian on Dec. 31.
Without so much as a trace of irony, Michaels referenced Michael Crichton's new thriller "State of Fear" in his criticisms against green activists. "It's just as Crichton describes it: Global warming ambulance-chasers often assume things to be true that simply are not," he said, unconcerned that he was referencing a work of conspiracy fiction. "This tsunami reaction is a perfect example of this phenomenon."
Enviros are baffled by these charges. "I've never heard of anybody in the environmental community who thinks global warming causes earthquakes or tsunamis," said Nicole St. Clair, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. "I'm reluctant to even dignify this with a response. It's a sham."
When pressed to name an environmentalist who had claimed a causal link between global warming and the South Asian tsunami, Michaels referenced comments made by Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth U.K., and Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace U.K., in a Dec. 29 article about the tsunami and other natural disasters of 2004 in the British newspaper the Independent (reprinted in Pretoria News. But while both environmental leaders were quoted remarking on an increase in natural disasters potentially related to global warming last year, neither mentioned the tsunami.
What some journalists, scientists and environmentalists have done is point out that two human-driven phenomena increase the potential havoc wreaked on coastlines by tsunamis and tropical storms: rising sea levels and a reduction of natural barriers (like coral reefs and mangrove swamps) that shelter coasts from oceanic damage. Both of these can be traced to human actions, including global warming, but have no causal relationship with tsunamis.
Michaels doesn't see the distinction. "Ludicrous!" he says of recent reports on these issues from Reuters and other news outlets. "It's a tremendous overreach to draw these connections and it will backfire on environmentalists."
Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University professor of geosciences and global warming expert, disagrees. "This is a perfectly defensible scientific argument," he said, noting that coral reefs and mangroves "provide a buffer that dissipates the ocean's force" and that these natural defenses are being destroyed by global warming and ill-planned development.
According to a recent New York Times article, islands in the Maldives paid a much lower human price than other areas battered by the tsunami (only 85 people died in the archipelago) thanks to large surrounding coral reefs that absorbed much of the impact of the waves. The Maldives have an unusually healthy population of coral reefs, while worldwide some 70 percent of coral reefs have been destroyed or are threatened by global warming and other human impacts.
Mangroves -- tropical trees and shrubs that grow densely along shorelines -- aren't faring much better. Fifty years of coastal development have ravaged mangrove forests along Indian Ocean coasts, and that in turn has led to ravaged human settlements, reports Emily Gertz in Worldchanging.com. "Mangrove destruction may have factored hugely in the loss of human life to the South Asia tsunamis, and mangrove restoration may be key to mitigating future disasters," she writes. M.S. Swaminathan, a leading agricultural scientist in India, agrees: "It is now found that wherever the mangroves have been regenerated, the damage due to the tsunami is minimal," he told the Guardian.
Global warming could also adversely affect mangroves, as they grow in swampy coastal areas that could be flooded by rising seas. Global sea levels increased by four to eight inches on average during the 20th century, and an additional rise of up to a staggering 2.5 feet is expected by the year 2100 given current trends, according to a 2001 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
An even more chilling statistic, in the wake of the recent tsunami, is that half of the planet's inhabitants currently live within 50 miles of ocean coastlines, according to Oppenheimer. "If there's a relationship to tsunamis and global warming, it's a reminder that billions of people live in coastal regions," he said. "And sea levels are rising at the same time that the natural protection of the coasts is being destroyed."
In raising these issues, environmentalists, along with those advocating for improved early-warning systems and more robust international disaster relief mechanisms, are working to reduce the human toll of future disasters. Ideologues on the right, engaged in their characteristic blend of projection and shadowboxing, might consider whether their time would be more productively spent joining the effort.