Do you remember the genuine wave of solidarity that swept across the Old Continent when the tsunami devastated six Asian countries last December? Now that the victim is the wealthy USA the scene is completely different. While private citizens have contributed to help fellow Americans to recover, most government officials have carefully avoided sponsoring any initiatives. A few of them also exploited the tragedy as an anti-American propaganda weapon.
Just to mention some examples, the German environmental minister Jürgen Trittin wrote: “The American president has closed his eyes to the economic and human damage that natural catastrophes such as Katrina - in other words, disasters caused by a lack of climate protection measures - can visit on his country”. CNE blogger Edgar Gärtner quotes the following EU statement: “The Kyoto Protocol continues to be the central tool of the global strategy to halt climate change”.
Indeed, many radical environmentalists viewed Katrina as a consequence of anthropogenic global warming, despite a lack of scientific evidence. As a matter of fact historical records show that in the last century hurricanes have not significantly changed in frequency or intensity - see the figure below from the National Hurricane Center at NOAA. Reading a summary of the actual scientific consensus on hurricanes and global warming might contribute substantially to the debate.
That said, the initial question - why Europeans react so differently to similar tragedies - is still to be answered. One reason may well be a sense of political rivalry. While countries in South-East Asia are not an obstacle to European political strategies, the US is - especially so long as the White House is in the hands of the Republicans. In a manner of speaking when one is not strong enough to win, one hopes that one’s opponent will lose, whatever “win” and “lose” mean in the international arena. (Some eurocrats believe the EU gains when and if our GDP is bigger than the US’s: this is a typical case where the EU’s performance cannot possibly exceed America’s, unless some exogenous tragedy such as Katrina shows up).
Yet I believe there is also a deeper reason, a sort of socialist commonplace widespread in Europe. Though in their criticism of Bush European officials maintained that all the victims in New Orleans were “black and poor”, not one of them organised fundraising campaigns to aid these poor blacks as they did to excess for the poor Asian victims of the tsunami. Why? Because those who like to evoke the oppressed “poor black” in rhetoric know that he does not exist in fact. While poor Asians had little to lose by the tsunami, people in New Orleans - even the poorest - had comparatively much to lose. Consider also that in the popular perception every American is rich, no matter if many of the actual victims could not even afford a car. By the way, this is an issue that sooner or late the anti-car activists will have to deal with: how many lives would have been saved if more people had owned a car in New Orleans?
In a sense, there is a sort of satisfaction in the realisation that hurricanes strike regardless of personal income. They destroy the lives of the rich as well as the poor. Unlike hurricanes, many people do attach great importance to personal income. So when the rich man is in trouble, those who are comparatively less rich feel sort of pleased. Envy is just one step removed from cynicism. Perhaps that is the nemesis of the politically correct mood. Instead of seeing poverty as a problem which must be defeated, many believe Katrina is God’s vengeance against America’s wealth.