Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nuther Debate

Inspired, I listened to another debate (see my previous post). For this one the proposition was this: Global warming is not a crisis. I am increasingly for that proposition, but I wouldn't be willing to place a bet. However, for the moment, I'm going to assume that the science in the IPCC is entirely correct. I'm swayed by others who have much doubt about some of the science. But let's forget that for now. Let's assume that the science is entirely correct.

Here's what I want to know: could we be better off in a world that's warmer and richer, than a world that's poorer and cooler? I think the answer is yes.

In 1900, a category 4 hurricane hit Galveston, TX. Sustained winds were about 135 mph. Estimates on the death toll from that storm vary from 6,000 to 12,000 (also here). The population of Galveston at the time was 37,000. This translates to somewhere between 16% - 32% of the population was killed from the storm. This was the deadliest natural disaster in US history.

Let's compare this to a more recent event: Hurricane Katrina, which is the deadliest storm in recent times. Many have argued that the strength and intensity of storms like Katrina results from global warming. And it's true, that the deadliest modern storm was a much stronger storm than the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Katrina was a category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 175 mph. This represents an exponential amount of additional energy in Katrina compared to the 1900 Galveston storm.

Katrina killed over 1800 people. Katrina hit an area with a population of over 1.3 million in the metro-area. As a percentage of population, Katrina killed about 0.1% of the metro-population of New Orleans.

A much more powerful storm, hit a much more populated area, and while still very deadly, killed many many fewer people. Katrina was a terrible tragedy. But compared to 32% of the population being killed, 0.1% is beyond astounding.

So why the difference? We're wealthier. That wealth afforded rapid transportation. It afforded telecommunications so that people could be informed. It afforded structures like the superdome so that those who had no place to go, still had shelter. It afforded satellites to monitor the storm. Computers to predict the track. Meterologists to estimate the impacts. It afforded people taking time off of work to go down and help after the event so that fewer of those who survived wouldn't perish in the weeks after. It afforded news coverage, not just to people in New Orleans, but to the world so that we could be informed that New Orleans might need help.

And all of that wealth contributed to saving lives when facing a natural disaster. If Katrina had the same effects that the 1900 Galveston storm had, it would have been a tragedy that would have been unequaled in history. 32% of the metro New Orleans area is 415,000 people. 415,000 people who's lives were saved as a result of the wealth that we currently possess.

So even if the climate scientists are completely right, they may be wrong about the best way to mitigate the consequences of global warming. Perhaps a federal law forcing carbon reductions is one way to do mitigate those consequences. But such a law also has costs down the road in reduced wealth, and not just a little bit of reduced wealth. A 1% reduction in GDP over the course of 100 years adds up to reducing wealth by more than 50% (compared to what it would have been). Wealth that might be better at saving lives than the carbon reductions are. Wealth that might afford structures deep under water and rapid transportation to them to avoid hurricanes altogether. Wealth that might afford technology that, in my wildest imagination, I would never come up with. All that technology and infrastructure deployable in the event of a natural disaster.

So, are we better being richer and warmer rather than poorer and cooler? I think we might be *MUCH* better off.

P.S. The title of this post stems from something that I say occasionally, but try to avoid, and that my wife says frequently while taking glee in my annoyance. Let me give you an example:
mjh: Hey! You gave all the kids a piece of the pie, but didn't save one for me?!?

wife: Calm down, honey, there's a whole nuther pie right here.
Of course, the "correct" language would be either "another whole" or "a whole other". It's funny that I stress about this, because language is an emergent phenomena. No one decides the rules. They evolve. I *should* accept "a whole nuther" as an emergent phrase with meaning that everyone understands. But it still irks me.

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