In the space of two weeks, Hurricane Gustav has caused an estimated $3 billion in losses in the U.S. and killed about 110 people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, catastrophic floods in northern India have left a million people homeless, and a 6.2-magnitude earthquake has rocked China's southwest, smashing more than 400,000 homes.
It is tempting to look at the lineup of storms in the Atlantic Ocean (Hanna, Ike, Josephine) and, in the name of everything green, blame climate change for this state of affairs. But there is another inconvenient truth out there: We are getting more vulnerable to weather mostly because of where we live, not just how we live.
If climate change is having an effect on the intensities of storms, it's not obvious in the historical weather data. And whatever effect it is having is much, much smaller than the effect of development along coastlines. In fact, if you look at all storms from 1900 to 2005 and imagine today's populations on the coasts, as Roger Pielke Jr., and his colleagues did in a 2008 Natural Hazards Review paper, you would see that the worst hurricane would have actually happened in 1926.
But the most insidious effect of building condos and industry along water is that we are systematically stripping coasts of the protection that used to cushion the blow of extreme weather. Three years after Katrina, southern Louisiana is still losing a football field's worth of wetlands every 38 minutes.