Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job

I discuss several examples of the complexity of causation in Tools for Critical Thinking in Biology, ranging from interactive effects of genes and environments on humans and other organisms to webs of relationships connecting predators and prey such as killer whales, sea otters, and sea urchins in the Aleutian Islands. Hurricane Katrina has been in the news because it hit New Orleans 10 years ago. In Chapter 8 of my book, I used the damage from Hurricane Katrina to introduce the idea that events happen due to complex webs of causation: mistakes by the Corps of Engineers that built the levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans, inadequate funding to build effective levees, development of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta, ineffectual responses by government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) due to patronage appointments of leaders for these agencies. I also discussed the potential role of climate change in increasing the average severity of hurricanes in the coming decades.

Hurricane katrina and New orleans

Web of causation for damage in New Orleans attributed to Hurricane Katrina.

President George W. Bush had appointed Michael D. Brown as head of FEMA two years before Katrina, despite Brown’s complete lack of prior experience in emergency management. Bush told Brown he was doing “a heckuva job” a few days after Katrina hit New Orleans; Brown resigned on September 12 when it had become abundantly clear that FEMA’s response was inadequate and ineffective.

I didn’t think much about Michael Brown when I wrote the book, but this tenth anniversary of Katrina inspired Emily Atkin of ThinkProgress to interview Brown about his activities since Katrina. Despite his ignominious departure from FEMA, Brown continued to do consulting work on emergency management, without much success, then became a talk radio host, where he promotes his views that humans have little if any effect on climate change. For example, he doesn’t believe that rising sea levels are much of a problem. According to Atkin, Brown thinks that “this is partially proven . . . by the fact that people are still buying and developing big properties on the more vulnerable areas of the East Coast”.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Michael Brown denies the evidence that humans influence global climate, although I would have hoped that his trial by fire during Katrina might have inspired a more thoughtful approach to this critical issue of our time.

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