A black blizzard's gonna fall

Lessons from the Dust Bowl for climate change lollygaggers.

Published May 8, 2007 10:26PM (EDT)

From "Drought, erosion, and despair on the Southern Great Plains," by R. Douglas Hurt:

...a high-pressure system had moved out of the Dakotas and into eastern Wyoming, silently lifting the powder-dry soil of the Plains as it went. By early afternoon it had created the most awesome "black blizzard" the people of the Dust Bowl would experience in the 1930s. As the dust cloud swept southward across eastern Colorado and western Kansas, it extended in a continuous line from west to east. From the height of a thousand feet the cloud boiled downward like the smoke of a gigantic oil fire, only to be met at the bottom by the rising columns of dust that it pushed before it. Inky black at its base, the cloud's color faded to a dark brown at the top as more sunlight permeated the dust. Some who saw it likened it to a great wall of muddy water. Hundreds of geese, ducks, and smaller birds flew in panic before it.

On April 20, the indispensable Government Accountability Office released a report investigating the differing approaches taken by private and federal insurers to prepare for the challenge of climate change. The gist -- private insurers and reinsurers are taking steps to prepare for the likely costs of extreme weather events occurring with greater frequency in the future, but federal insurers such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. (FCIC) have done little to prepare for such a prospect -- was widely commented on in the enviroblogosphere at the time. Without even considering Bush administration climate change denialism, one can see an easy reason for the disparity: Private insurers have their own money at risk, so they are forced to be cautious, whereas the feds have access to the unlimited budget of the U.S. government.

The likelihood that insurance company fear of climate change will lead to substantive changes in global environmental policies has always struck How the World Works as a rare hopeful indicator of how markets can work proactively to ward off calamity. But my attention was distracted from this theme by a historical note: Congress created the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. in 1938 -- largely as a result of the disastrous effects of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Although there were several factors that caused the Dust Bowl, including not least, a succession of massive droughts, one can make the argument that it was one of the greatest man-made environmental disasters ever self-inflicted on the United States. Overproduction of wheat forced prices down, leading Great Plains farmers to plant even more wheat, often on marginal lands where the soil was especially prone to erosion. The advent of new agricultural technologies -- such as the infamous "one-way disc plow" that ripped the plains sod into a fine powder -- combined with terrible soil management practices to create an environment in which unfathomable amounts of top soil simply blew away, leading to massive population dislocation.

As a consequence, those farmers that remained were forced to adopt new anti-erosion tilling techniques, and government came up with new safety net programs -- like crop insurance -- to prevent anything similar from happening again.

That's how it usually works -- a disaster occurs, and in the aftermath, people change their ways. Hurricane Katrina obliterates New Orleans, and insurance rates promptly rise on the Gulf Coast. The great challenge of climate change is that we are trying to change our ways before the next catastrophe engulfs us, and humans simply aren't very good at that. As the GAO points out, the NFIP and the FCIC base their predictions on what the future costs of extreme weather events will likely be on a comparison with the historical record, without taking, according to the GAO, proper account of the scientific consensus that holds that the future will not be like the past.

But if you're looking for a good metaphor describing where that approach may lead, the past is still useful. Care for a "black blizzard," anyone?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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