Monster Storms: Deniable Culpability

No one knows for sure who killed Ronnie Lee Gardner.

Shortly after midnight on June 18th, 2010, Gardner was strapped into a massive chair in a Utah state prison block, and a bull’s-eye was pinned over his heart. Twenty feet away in the shadows stood five marksmen with rifles issued by the State of Utah. On command, they fired in one deafening volley. Five rifles recoiled together. But only four lead bullets slammed into Gardner’s chest.

No one on the firing squad will ever know for sure if he fired a lethal shot. One gun was loaded with a dummy – probably wax – bullet, which is said to deliver the same recoil as a live round.

The dummy bullet – or blank cartridge – is a time-honored device to assuage the conscience of those pressed into duty as executioners by the archaic means of a firing squad. There’s always the possibility, anyone can tell himself, that I only fired a harmless ball of wax. Call me a killer? Who knows? You can’t blame me with any certainty.

And that’s the comfort that a country in denial can take as we watch reports of utter devastation coming out of the island nation of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest tropical storms to visit the world since record-keeping began. Pam, a Category 5 cyclone, slammed into this Pacific nation of 252,000 souls spread across 80 islands last Friday, destroying virtually everything in its path.

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home's wreckage

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home’s wreckage

According to an estimate by the University of Wisconsin, the central atmospheric pressure of Cyclone Pam was a near-record-low 879 millibars. That would make Pam stronger than any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, except the two most powerful. Early reports indicate that 80-90 percent of structures in Vanuatu have been destroyed or damaged. How do you rebuild a nation after almost all the human structures are in ruins?  For this archipelago, a direct hit by a world-record mega-storm likely spells the beginning of irreversible decline.

Climate science uniformly links increased tropical storm intensity to manmade climate change. Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences summed it up like this: “Basic physical understanding and model results suggest that the strongest hurricanes (when they occur) are likely to become more intense and possibly larger in a warmer, moister atmosphere over the oceans.”

But responsible scientists almost never blame any particular event on global warming trends. Does manmade global warming lead to stronger storms and floods? Sure. Did climate change turn Cyclone Pam into a monster? Well, that’s complicated. How long do you have?

And so, to the climate-change deniers, who currently control the legislative agenda in the US Congress, you can breathe easy for a bit. Cyclone Pam may have rendered the homeland of a quarter-million Pacific islanders functionally uninhabitable, but who can say for certain whether you bear any blame? This should bring immense relief to politicians like Boehner, McConnell and Inhofe (the Oklahoma senator who invented the “greatest hoax” narrative).

With scores of outlying islands, Cyclone Pam's damage will take

Early reports: 80-90% of Vanuatu structures destroyed or damaged.

And why pick on these poor guys? In fact, 49 of 54 GOP Senators just voted against a non-binding Senate resolution simply affirming the global consensus that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Ever since the Supreme Court tilted the electoral playing field in favor of unlimited moneyed interests, Republican politicians who admit that we need an alternative to oil, gas and coal have been tossed out one by one, or have “evolved” in their views.

So, American politicians, maybe you look silly to most voters today. Maybe the average European, African or Asian is aghast that you’re still professing climate ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence. Maybe future generations will beg to know how you could possibly have ignored their chances of survival with your last-ditch stand on behalf of polluters. But you can take comfort in this: No scientist will ever blame you specifically for Cyclone Pam, and the destruction of a Pacific nation.

Thousands on Vanuatu – and millions more around the world – may be permanently homeless. But who can say that you’re to blame?

Maybe, after all, you only fired the dummy bullet.

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