Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

What’s causing the tornado tsunami

May 24, 2011 16:54 UTC

“Tornadoes are currently on a frightening upswing.” That could have been written yesterday — but was written 12 years ago, by your columnist, in the November 8, 1999 issue of The New Republic.

The onslaught of tornadoes is not some sudden, unexpected bolt out of the blue. I wrote about tornadoes a dozen years ago because 1998 and 1999 were terrible years for tornadoes. Now three of the last 12 years have been terrible for tornadoes, and the 1950-2010 trend isn’t so great either.

This spring’s tornado activity has been awful. At least 116 people died in Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday during an unusually strong and large tornado. A portion of Tuscaloosa, Alabama was destroyed by a tornado last month. Many tornadoes hit the Ozarks region in April. There were 875 confirmed tornadoes in April, triple the previous April high of 267, in 1974. So far 481 Americans have been killed by tornadoes this spring.

In recent decades, the installation of a Doppler radar warning system in tornado-prone areas has tended to reduce fatalities — sirens get people’s attention. But even 24 minutes of warning, which Joplin received on Sunday, may not be sufficient for a tornado that was a hard-to-believe half a mile across. (The touch-down part of a tornado is rarely more than 100 yards wide.) More disturbing tornado facts are here.

Weather patterns include random variation: some recent years have been mild for tornadoes. Before this spring, the worst tornado sequence in U.S. annals came in 1953, when atmospheric greenhouse gas levels were lower than today. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think tornadoes are a harbinger of climate change.

Why we should focus on methane; not carbon dioxide

May 19, 2011 17:44 UTC

Gasoline is above $4 a gallon, a price that makes Americans think the End of Days is approaching. President Barack Obama wants the oil industry to give up a mere $2 billion per year in tax favors, and Big Oil CEOs just told Congress this is out of the question. (Watch CEOs of some of the world’s richest companies cry poor-mouth here).

Huge amounts of shale gas are being discovered in the United States, but does extracting the gas pollute groundwater? In a recent speech, Obama was upfront about all U.S. plans for “energy independence” being just political hot air. And for the zillionth consecutive year, Congress is supposed to enact a comprehensive national energy policy, but instead appears focused on horse-trading subsidies and bailouts.

Is there anything being missed in the endless energy debate?

Yes — methane emissions. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane could be regulated without economic risk, reducing the artificial greenhouse effect and buying society a decade or two of extra time to research ways to control other greenhouse gases.

With bin Laden dead, why doesn’t the U.S. leave Afghanistan?

May 11, 2011 19:28 UTC

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.

So why doesn’t the United States leave?

By autumn, American forces will have spent a full decade in Afghanistan — conducting patrols, bombing the heinous, bombing the innocent. The United States has roughly 100,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan, almost as many as the peak force in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan constrains the Taliban, and the Taliban are an awful group. But the Taliban are a central Asian problem afflicting Afghanistan and Pakistan — their existence does not in any way threaten the United States’ national interest.

Discussing bin Laden on the BBC

May 10, 2011 17:27 UTC

Recently, I was a guest on BBC World Service, to discuss whether the killing of Osama bin Laden can be called “justice.” The BBC podcast is here. My Reuters column on the subject is here.

Why the U.S. had a right to kill Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011 16:33 UTC

Should the United States have invaded Iraq? Should the United States be bombing Libya? These are troubling questions. But there is no question the United States had a right to kill Osama bin Laden — and no doubt his death is good news, including for the world’s Muslims, most of whom are law-abiding and peace-loving.

Bin Laden led an organization that attacked civilians in the United States and several other nations. Under international law, under all ethical and most religious reasoning, the United States had a clear right of self-defense regarding bin Laden and al Qaeda. Pakistani national sovereignty may have been violated, which is an issue for Washington and Islamabad to work out. But the killing itself was self-defense. No serious person — and no school of thought — should object.

Some time may pass before important details are known. From initial reports, these thoughts come to mind:

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