The press have now accused Obama of having at least three ‘Katrina’ moments: the Haitian earthquake, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and even, most weirdly, the inept online introduction of ‘Obamacare’. Where the first is classified as a ‘natural’ disaster, the second ‘environmental’ and the third ‘political’, these labels entirely fail to capture the complex agency at work in these events. The press have for a while been flirting with the idea that the widespread flooding of large parts of the UK as a result of successive winter gales perhaps represents Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘George Bush’ moment. By this they refer to the fact that George W. Bush’s approval ratings plummeted following the government’s disastrously inept response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many think that it also sealed the fate of the Republican Party in the next election.
If only this were such a moment. Cameron’s coalition government is responsible for major cuts in Britain’s flood defences, now overseen by an Environment Secretary who is openly sceptical about climate change – a process that the vast majority of scientists now believe is indisputable. As sea levels rise, vast swathes of the UK are under threat, with an estimated one-sixth of properties in England and Wales at immediate risk. As much of Somerset sits under water, the memory of Cameron on skis in the North Pole during the run up to the election in 2010 – an embarrassing spectacle designed to demonstrate his ‘green’ credentials – makes one feel a bit queasy. In an un-self-conscious moment the leader of this austerity government told the press that in responding to the floods, ‘money is no object’. Such a statement carries painful ironies for the growing numbers who are now relying on food banks as a result of the government’s cuts to the benefits budget. It’s hard not to conclude that the UK government has a US-style scenario in mind, in which the rich, paying next to no taxes, have money to burn, where others go hungry. Such was the society unveiled by Katrina in 2005.
The UK government is politically wise to respond generously to the plight of the flood victims: unlike those vilified here for ‘welfare dependency’ or those stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, these people have – rightly – been constructed as deserving citizens. BBC reportage in particular has presented a homey vision of the flooding (the levels of which are nothing like those seen in New Orleans in 2005), featuring neighbours coming together and pensioners heroically settling down to sleep on chairs in their wellies, their feet submerged beneath water. Mild criticism of the government has been voiced in relation to its ‘mixed messages’ and ‘disorganization’ but the overwhelming impression given on screen is that these people are fending for themselves, and they are cheery about it.
This is all a bit too good-humoured. It fuels the ‘little-Britain’ mentality that has led to the Daily Mail campaign to pressure the government to re-divert its already stingy foreign aid budget to domestic flood victims. And David Cameron and his government need to be punished at the polls. Not least for the fact that they have quietly sacrificed vast areas of the UK that are not deemed economically significant – a policy that echoes the Army Corps of Engineers’ neglect of the New Orleans levees, and the US government’s lack of commitment to restoring the Louisiana wetlands, the fastest disappearing landmass on earth. And yet the idea that this might be Cameron’s ‘Bush moment’ is too easy. It risks reducing the implications of changing weather patterns, likely to have ever more devastating effects, to the agency of one man. It lets us off the hook, gives us someone to blame, relieving us of the far more scary implications of climate change.
In the UK, people like to talk about the weather. This may seem strange to those accustomed to the more extreme fluctuations of continental climates, but even the temperate system here offers vast variations within just a few hours that observers like to constantly comment on. Even so, it was a weird experience returning from the hurricane season in New Orleans to a country seemingly obsessed by the weather. Against all predictions, the US Gulf Coast was treated to an unusually inactive season this year. In contrast, Britain has been battered by successive storms for about three months. Levels of rainfall are unprecedented. It is a peculiar feeling witnessing these storms with the awareness that they may bring with them something of the reality of climate change. This sense is compounded by the fact that these weather events are not isolated, exceptional, but ongoing, and likely to get worse. In contrast to the Katrina moment, which, in the words of Richard Campanella, made most New Orleanians (understandably) ‘crave normalcy’ and anticipate its return, the floods in the UK, we are increasingly told, may represent the new normal.
One of the major problems with public perceptions of climate change is that it challenges and transcends short-term temporal frames upon which politicians and society alike rely. Constant battering by the weather has the ability to alter consciousness in relation to this ‘slow motion’ disaster. The other big problem with getting the message out about human-induced climate change is the question of agency.
As has been the case for a while, commentators committed to exposing the realities of climate change have wrestled with this dilemma – make the problem seem too large, people will feel overwhelmed; but make the problem seem too small and people will do nothing. Another way of putting this dilemma is: under-emphasize human agency, people will view the changes as natural and themselves as innocent onlookers; over-emphasize it, people will either play a reductive blame game or they will may decide that recycling plastic bags is the answer. None of these approaches capture the measure of the enormous challenge presented to us by climate change. Standard graphs charting carbon emissions from the industrial revolution should be enough to convince us that humans are responsible for global warming. And yet increased storm activity in the UK, along with the many extreme weather events that have struck places around the world, often with cataclysmic results, suggests that human beings are not in control of the climatic shifts that they have probably played a major role in unleashing. Scientists and journalists have conveyed this idea through the notion of ‘runaway’ climate change – the moment at which human beings are no longer able to pull the climate back from the brink. Many are saying now that we are already beyond it.
It’s become a standard rhetorical move in commentary on Hurricane Katrina to emphasise its ‘unnatural’ status as a disaster. Some like to describe the effects of the levee breaches in New Orleans as a ‘federal flood’. Bush in particular is singled out for severe treatment. Key moments like Kanye West’s unexpected comment on live tv – ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ – were important for the fact that they captured popular anger towards a state that has all but abandoned its most vulnerable citizens. Such moves offer satisfying polemic but are ultimately reductive. George Bush did not single-handedly create the conditions for grotesque racial and economic disparities in New Orleans, neither did he invent the militarized security state that responded to the victims as though they were enemies of war. And he certainly can’t be held responsible on any individual basis for warming weather and the increased likelihood of severe hurricanes, in spite of the fact that he oversaw an administration that possibly did more than any other to wreck agendas to combat climate change. The record suggests that a Democratic administration would not have done much differently.
For years relatively conservative bodies have been issuing climate predictions that read like science fiction. The idea that related instances of disaster can be compartmentalized and reduced to the figure of Bush or Obama or Cameron suggests that human agency is all. And yet this is the essence of our deeply problematic relationship to the environment, that which we imagine as a somehow external and separate ‘natural world’. It is a colonial mindset that has meant that developing countries have already paid a devastating price for western industrialization. The greatest cost for those in the global South may be yet to come, but changing weather patterns in the West suggest that we reap at least some of what we sow.
Under human stewardship, this earth is losing thousands of species every year, dramatically reducing biodiversity. If we don’t simultaneously adopt attitudes that hold our governments to account for reckless environmental policies and embrace some humility in relation to a world that cannot cope with our current demands on its resources, some scientists are suggesting that human beings will be all but extinct by the end of this century. Talking about ‘David Cameron’s Katrina’ is largely a rhetorical matter, but it says something about the simplistic lenses we like to deploy to frame disaster. David Cameron is a good metaphor for a society that has sacrificed compassion and care to the logic of the market. But we can’t blame all this on a two-faced politician and his Arctic adventure.