Can Americans Prevent Future Katrinas?



Hurricane Katrina has come, and raged, and passed. Our nation faces a moment as crucial as July 4, 1776, December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001. We are at a crossroads and have vitally important decisions to make. As a physician, evangelical Christian, and environmental lecturer and writer, I would like to explore the events that led up to where we are and the roads that lie ahead.

On November 2, PBS will air a documentary filmed over the past two years and produced by Stonehaven Productions and South Carolina ETV. Global Warming: The Signs and the Science predicts with chilling accuracy the sinking of New Orleans. But that is not all. Because of constantly rising sea levels and dramatic increases in air and water temperature, scientists predict more frequent and more intense severe weather. This will place population centers such as Miami, New York, London, and Baltimore at similar risk for storm surges and flooding. Vast areas of the American Southwest will simultaneously experience drought.

The majority of climate scientists and meteorologists worldwide agree that global warming is a fact, not a theory. Still, there are a few who say there is no problem, or that the problem needs more study. As a physician, I cannot help but think back to those few scientists who for decades declared that there was no connection between cigarette smoking and disease. We can see for ourselves that cities are consistently warmer than nearby rural areas, and 80 percent of our population lives in greater metropolitan areas. We burn trillions of gallons of fossil fuels yearly and we are cutting down the world’s forests. Riding in a plane, we can see the extent of mankind’s reworking of the planet. From the air and from the ground, an ominous haze hangs overhead. Denial of the obvious is as old as Adam, yet no less dangerous today.

In general we are not good at reading obvious signs. We live on Chestnut or Elm Street and do not question why the elms and chestnuts are extinct. We live in Caribou, Maine, but the caribou are no more. We demand homes and golf courses in places formerly named Dry Gulch or Death Valley. We fear drinking the water or eating the fish from nearby lakes and streams because they contain dioxin and mercury. We may deny these signs and our connection to the natural world, but that does not mean they are not real. I can pull from my bookshelf two editions of the same medical textbook published only 22 years apart (the 13th and 17th printings of the Merck Manual). The earlier edition says that a woman’s risk of breast cancer is 1 in 15. The recent one says it is 1 in 8. A correct response to this medical fact is not to build more cancer treatment centers, just as the right response to global warming is not to buy everyone an air conditioner. It is time to think long-term. It is time to talk about diverting disasters and preventing diseases.

No one, scientist or otherwise, can say exactly which hurricanes, droughts, or floods are caused by global warming. Yet some of them are, and there will continue to be more. Rarely can science say which chemical, toxin, hormone, or food additive caused a particular cancer or other disease. Yet the links are well established. Conversely, if we as a country or as individuals make changes to lower our use of natural resources, we cannot point to the exact life that might be saved. We must do what is right for the future based on faith and trust. Faith and trust are not always synonymous with government or business. Answers and leadership in these areas must come from those who possess a moral compass—people who are able to read signs and make appropriate changes.

Increasingly, evangelical leaders such as the Reverends Richard Cizik, Jim Ball, and Rick Warren are calling believers to stop b

usiness as usual and to change their lifestyles as needed. They ask that we take individual responsibility for the care of the planet. The Bible declares that the earth is the Lord’s and that everything living belongs to Him (Psalm 24). When we read the Bible, we find that God likes—even loves—trees and flowers and whales. He takes note at the falling of the smallest sparrow. How can we as believers claim to love God and yet be oblivious or destructive to what He loves?

The Bible says that God created the earth to provide for all of humanity’s needs. It was not given to one or two generations of us to be exploited for our every want and whim. If we do not change our ways, our ways will be changed for us, and it will not be pleasant. All existing models predict that if we continue business as usual, we can expect dozens and dozens of Katrina-like events every decade.

Through His teachings and parables, Jesus stressed care not for the rich, powerful, politically connected, or famous, but rather for the most humble and lowly. By definition, no one is more powerless or dependent than today’s youth or those yet to be born. In order to save their planet, we will have to make changes. We cannot wait on governments to force us to do what is right. We must begin today.

Driving an average SUV puts six tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually; a small hybrid gives off one and one-half tons, and biking gives off none. Drying clothing in an electric dryer for a family of four makes one ton of greenhouse gases annually, while line drying gives off none. The U.S. Government’s Energy Star website says that if every family in America changed just five light bulbs to compact fluorescents, we could shut down twenty-one coal powered plants tomorrow; this would have the same effect as taking eight million cars off the road. It would prevent an estimated two thousand respiratory and other related deaths annually.

America does not suffer from what one cynical writer called “compassion fatigue.” We will give our money, clothing, time, and homes to Katrina’s victims. What we must decide now is whether we have the courage and wisdom to make the changes needed to clean up our planet and halt global warming. Every time we drive less, carpool, turn off the lights, or move to a smaller home, we invest in the future of all creatures great and small, not to mention our own children. With God all things are possible.

Matthew Sleeth serves as Blessed Earth’s Executive Director and resides with his wife, Nancy, in Wilmore, KY.