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Toe's swellin' up - that mean's a hurricane's comin'

So Tropical Storm Erika is rapidly approaching my home in South Florida. Those who don't live on the Gulf Coast or the South East usually aren't familiar with the drama that is living through a hurricane. Its an emotional roller coaster similar to what war has been described as "boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror."

The hurricane comes at somewhat of an odd time; coming almost exactly three years after I was caught outside my house in the middle of a tornado which sent me flying into a wall after being hit by a wall of water. The tornado three years ago was the remnants of Tropical Storm Debbie, which was supposed to completely miss my neighborhood. The winds were so strong that they snapped a solid concrete bench in my back yard in half, right down to the re-bar.

A gentle summer breeze
In my front yard, the tornado ripped a 15-20 foot tree out by the roots, twisted it until it cracked, and laid the whole mess to rest on the hood of my car - missing the roof of my house by inches.

I was so psyched to see this
Miraculously I was able to salvage my laptop, which I had with me when I got hit by the storm. I got another couple of years of decent service out of it before the monitor hinges gave out (the computer itself still works). Here's hoping my new laptop survives Tropical Storm Erika with the same style.

SPECIAL POST-HURRICANE UPDATE: So as it turns out I was not sucked into the great beyond this storm. The day the hurricane was originally supposed to hit my house, it didn't even rain. The brunt of the storm hit the tropics and tragically killed 20 people in the island state of Dominica.

The awful consequences of Tropical Storm Erika for Dominica are worth considering in more detail. Those familiar with the fallout of hurricanes and near-hurricanes, as those of us doomed to live in Florida invariably are, have seen this pattern before: tropical paradises like Dominica invariably pay a much higher price to whatever it is that generates these storms than those of us in the US do. Its not just hurricanes, and its not just islands. There is a clear correlation between a country's wealth and the number of people in that country who die as a result of natural disasters. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it: "Relative to low socioeconomic conditions, the impact of weather-related disasters in poor countries may be 20-30 times larger than in industrialized countries" ("Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability", James J McCarthy et al, Cambridge University Press;). Even though wealthy countries experience natural disasters at similar rates to poor countries, when wealthy countries get hit, less people die ("The Death Toll From Natural Disasters: The Role of Income, Geography, and Institutions", Matthew E. Kahn, Tufts University and Stanford University;) Meanwhile, the number of people killed by natural disasters has been decreasing steadily since 1900 (EM−DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, Universit√© Catholique de Louvain;) - just as global economic growth has exploded over the same time period (World Bank National Accounts Data & OECD National Accounts data files; "The World Economy: a millennial perspective", Angus Maddison, Table B-18 World GDP, 20 Countries and Regional Totals, 0-1998 A.D.; "Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD", Angus Maddison, Oxford University Press) The global reduction in fatalities is extremely not-worthy because the global population has been in the midst of geometric growth (“Catching Up with the Economy”, American Economic Review 89[1] [March], 1–21, Robert Fogel, 1999) - it would be reasonable to assume that with more people on the planet, with the resulting issues of population density, more people would die as the result of storms and earthquakes but in fact the opposite has happened!

Whether we look at the situation globally or country-to-country, economic growth results in fewer people dying due to extreme weather events. And we aren't talking about the fabled "1%", either. These results are remarkable because the deal with huge numbers of people. Poor people in wealthy countries are safer from natural disasters than middle class people from poor countries. The difference in the rate is not explainable by jet-setters who have their own private bunkers to ride out Category 5 storms. The difference is the result of numerous factors, but leading among them is, in wealthy countries, the wide availability of housing using sturdy, reliable materials. In the United States and Europe, even homeless shelters have roofs made of concrete, wood and ceramic and not branches, leaves and mud.

Why should this consideration give us pause? The debate over global warming, more recently referred to simply as climate change, is an issue of some prominence both socially and politically. Among the topics of contention in this debate is the notion that global warming either is currently causing or will soon cause natural disasters that are either more frequent, more deadly or both. Another point of no small controversy is that, in order to prevent global warming, some social mechanism must be put into action to reduce the emission of carbon and other so-called "greenhouse gases" by human beings. For many, the only way to accomplish this carbon reduction effectively is to reduce the amount of economic growth. Those supporting this argument use the same economic growth measurements I have posted above and, rather than drawing a correlation between a reduced number of natural disaster fatalities, they draw a correlation between increased carbon emissions. I agree with them on this latter point. Increased economic growth has historically and will for the foreseeable future result in the increased emission of carbon. More wealth means more automobiles, it means electricity, air-conditioning and it also means the consumption of more meat. All of these produce greenhouse gas emissions (farm animals produce methane).

Those who wish to control carbon emissions through the control of the economy go a bit further than simply demarcating a correlation between economic growth and carbon emissions. Supporters of this view seek to reduce economic growth to reduce carbon emissions - either directly, through some profound change in government, or indirectly, through government decrees that result in slowed economic growth (usually in the form of a tax, but other measures could be taken, such as tariffs or increases in regulation, that could reliably reduce economic activity).

The point I hope to make here is a small one, but nonetheless I feel it is an important point. Before I make the point, though, I wish to point out that I am not a "denier" of climate change or global warming. I agree with the overall point that greenhouse gasses can harm the environment, and will likely result in the warming of the planet. The devil, though, as always, remains in the details. I do, however, take issue with what the correct course of action is in the face of this dilemma. I also resent the implication, quite popular, that the fact of climate change demands a specific course of action, and that course of action is beyond dispute or further consideration. Regardless of the credentials of the person making such a demand, there is nothing "scientific" about a non-sequitur. In fact, appeals to authority are very commonly the purview of religion.

My point is merely this: calls to stifle economic growth cannot be justified using the threat of natural disasters. If our primary goal is saving human lives, the evidence is in favor of increasing economic growth rather than decreasing it: particularly if such events will become more frequent. Consider the following graph illustrating the presumed death toll fluctuations given a variable per-capita GDP:

Predicted Annual Death From Natural Disasters
GDP Per-Capita Expected Deaths Probability Death equals zero
$2,000 893 0.275
$8,000 412 0.279
$14,000 189 0.286

NOTE: In this table, population is set at 100 million and the year is set to 1990. The
predictions are based on the actual count of natural disasters that a
nation experiences.

The table above presumes one country for one year. These are non-trivial amounts of human life we are talking about here.

At issue is scarcity. We must contend with the fact that there is a finite amount of resources and a finite amount of human labor and ingenuity. When we put an absolute value on resolving a single issue, say global warming, and say that all other issues must take a back seat to this one - which is exactly what reducing the global economy is doing - there will be consequences that are unforeseen, or inconvenient. Or, as in this case, deadly.

There is a conflict in environmentalist thought - between the priorities of conservation and the needs of human beings on the other. I do not believe that this automatically makes all environmentalist appeals irrelevant. For example, no matter how convenient and efficient inhumane factory farming practices are I believe there is a strong case for abolishing such practices. However, we ought to be clear that this tension exists between human needs on the one hand and the values of environmentalism on the other. When we ignore that tension we invite the sort of unforeseen but easily foreseeable consequences I have outlined above.

This is not the first time this has happened. One of the more devastating and cruel policies to come out of the White House in recent memory was the implementation during the Bush administration of a subsidy for the production of crops for ethanol. Over time it became obvious to all those who approached the topic with even a modicum of objectivity that ethanol has been a failure in its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: while ethanol burns somewhat "cleaner" than regular gasoline, producing ethanol has an enormous energy cost which, at the absolute best, makes the matter a wash. Apart from that, mixed ethanol blends which have been mandated for use across the United States cause damage over time to the automobiles that are forced to use them; manufacturing cars, engines and parts costs energy, which in turn results in increased carbon emissions. But that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was that the subsidies led to farmers growing crops for the production of ethanol rather than for grain. The farmers could not be blamed for doing so: they stood to make substantial profits from selling their crops for ethanol. All of those farmers making the switch meant that there were less farmers to produce grain. The demand for grain, however, didn't go away - it continued to rise with the growth in population.

As anyone who stayed awake for the first 30 minutes of a course in any economics subject can tell you, when you reduce the supply and increase the demand, the price increases. And thats what happened. The price of grain shot through the roof. For those of us in wealthy countries, this made absolutely no difference. No one noticed. People don't eat "grain" in the US. We eat hamburgers. It was those living in the poorest countries, living on absolute subsistence wages, or who grew other crops that they must trade for food, that were devastated by the increased grain prices. For the world's destitute, food is the primary expense. For the world's destitute, meat is not on the menu - grain is the primary staple.

And so a good-intentioned policy to combat global warming, justified in part on saving poor people from the ravages of global warming, made global warming worse - and starved the poorest among us. We should think about these things when we think of Tropical Storm Erika, and we should not repeat the same mistakes.