Exploiting the Tsunami Disaster

The tsunami the day after Christmas has so far killed more than 150,000 in South Asia and East Africa.

It was a terrible tragedy to which the world is responding quickly and generously. But, in some quarters, the tsunami offers an irresistible opportunity for exploitation – and not just by kidnappers of orphans to use as prostitutes.

Unscrupulous activists, who have so far been unable to enact a scheme for mandatory reductions in energy under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, are telling whoever will listen, “See, we told you so!”

“The argument goes roughly like this,” said an editorial in the Chicago Tribune. “Greenhouse gases, largely from the United States and industrialized nations, have fueled a global warming trend that is melting the ice caps and contributing to a rise in sea levels that might have caused or aggravated the South Asia disaster.”

In a typical example, the Tribune cited Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth in Britain saying, “Here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate change predictions.”

Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist of The Washington Post, depicted a couple of Asians on a devastated island, looking at a newspaper with the headline, “CO2 Emissions.” One comments, “Does it say what the West will be sending?” The other replies, “A six-foot increase in sea level.”

And Voice of America broadcast an interview with Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, who claimed that the tsunami “highlights the need to take action on global warming.” All of us are to blame, said Oreskes _ “every single one of us who drives a car, heats our house, flies an airplane, … Anybody who basically lives in the modern world is involved in this activity.”

Much of this shameful nonsense is simply the result of people being swept away by their own rhetoric _ or their desire to raise money for their organizations. But at its root are two profoundly incorrect sentiments:

First is solipsism: We humans are the most powerful force on Earth. How can there be a disaster if we didn’t cause it?

Second is naturism: If we humans didn’t mess with Mother Nature, everything would be perfectly peachy.

To the contrary. Research indicates, more and more, that recent warming at the surface of Earth is mainly influenced by cyclical changes at the surface of the sun, where, as far as we can tell, no one is driving an SUV.

As for the tsunami itself: It was started by a huge earthquake, the violent, unpredictable handiwork of Nature, or, if you prefer, God.

But didn’t global warming raise sea levels to start with, making the tsunami more devastating? No. Sea levels in the northeastern Indian Ocean have been going down, not up.

But assume the worst – a global rise of 4 to 8 inches over the past century, as claimed by a U.N. group. Even an increase of an inch a decade is minimal, compared with a Dec. 26 tidal wave estimated at 30 to 40 feet high. And it could have been worse. The wave unleashed by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 reached 100 feet or more.

The truth is that terrible, terrible things happen that can’t be blamed on George W. Bush or any other human. The only way to mitigate them is through wealth and technological progress. As Glenn Reynolds wrote recently on TechCentralStation.com: “The best protection against catastrophes is a society that is rich enough, and diverse enough, to be well-prepared for all sorts of contingencies. Which means that economic growth, and the freedom that produces it, may be the best guarantor of safety for us all.”

A rich society has the dikes to hold back the sea, the advanced construction to keep buildings from collapsing, the communications systems to warn of disasters, the roads to help people escape and the hospitals to treat the injured – not to mention the imagination and flexibility to respond to the unforeseen.

If there is any way at all to reduce the horrifying effects of a natural disaster like the one that just visited the Indian Ocean, it’s to reduce poverty in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the rest of the developing world – an aim that, by the way, would be beneficial even if there’s never another tsunami.

The proper project for the next century is fighting poverty and encouraging economic growth – not exploiting fears and imposing a windmill-powered, no-growth society.

(James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of TechCentralStation.com.)