Who or what is responsible for the hurricanes Harvey and Irma that recently devastated the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming? Urbanization? Or perhaps Nature itself?
Natural disasters were equated to some divine punishment until the 18th century — a theory that dates back to the Flood. After destroying land and sea, God personally promised Noah to never again wreak such havoc upon His work. Ever since, we have survived one disaster after another, each generally caused by humans rather than any divinity. Chance gradually replaced the mystical explanations. For example, when Lisbon was wiped out by an earthquake in 1755, Voltaire suggested that Nature was not entirely benevolent, and that earthquakes could be explained by a conjunction of elements instead of divine intervention. And so meteorology was born — the first scientific attempt, not to dominate the climate, but rather to understand its operation and predict its short-term behavior.
This much pragmatism, rationality, and modesty could not permanently satisfy our contemporaries’ thirst for total knowledge and control. This desire led a handful of astrophysicists from NASA to design their own climate models during the 1970s, and they discovered that certain gases, known as “greenhouse gases,” such as methane and carbon dioxide, were contributing to heating up the atmosphere. While sunspots and a change in the Earth’s angle of rotation are two factors that play a role in global warming, we are not yet able to measure them. The demonization of carbon dioxide by climatologists is therefore not so much the result of a practical demonstration, but rather of a hypothesis. And while it is plausible, it focuses arbitrarily on what we can understand and what we may be able to control. This idea of mastering the climate therefore offers the mind great satisfaction, as it sweeps away the element of chance and provides humanity with a potential say in its climatic future.
This revision of what we do and do not know about global warming, halfway between science and ideology (why do we “believe” in global warming?), is vital if we are to analyze the hurricanes that recently devastated the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. We have heard and read audacious critics claiming global warming is responsible for these hurricanes and their paths of destruction. Some of them have also placed the guilt upon Donald Trump, as he failed to remain within the Paris Agreement which committed the United States to reducing its CO2 emissions. This theory gives Trump more credit than he deserves, as for now he has no control over hurricanes. It should also be noted that climatologists have always denied any direct link between local natural disasters and global warming. We should therefore look over the stark evidence. September is hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. The city of Galveston, near Houston, was completely demolished by a storm in 1900, and 8,000 people drowned. There is therefore nothing new to these recent events, except the fact that more cities have since been built in previously uninhabited places. Houston, for example, is built on a swamp, and when old waterways and lakes are covered over with concrete, rainwater floods neighborhoods instead of draining away. The 2005 hurricane Katrina submerged the lower (and more recently constructed) areas of New Orleans, but spared the old town higher up.
It seems in light of these tragedies that God has kept his word, but Noah’s descendants pay little or no attention to Nature as we know it today. While Nature is deified by certain ecologists in a similar way to ancient pagans, it is not in any way responsible either. After all, no one is supposed to live on a swamp or in a flood area. It is of course more comfortable to blame Nature, global warming, Donald Trump, and climate change deniers, instead of pointing the finger at real estate developers. Before we even think about reducing methane and carbon dioxide emissions, we should prepare for the next hurricanes. And instead of a political and media frenzy, we need to seriously evaluate our decision to build cities on the coast. Even Noah would have understood that.