Like so many others I’ve been watching with concern Hurricane Sandy that is crashing into the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
The questions have already begun: is this climate change? Recall this is the second year in a row hurricane New York and the East Coast has faced a hurricane.
The Guardian notes this has potential to one of the worst storms to hit the US. This follows the brutal summer heat waves, wild fires and loss of crops that have devastated large parts of that country.
As a direct consequence of these events acceptance of climate change among the American public has been shifting towards an overwhelming majority (Bloomberg):
In a poll taken July 12-16, 70 percent of respondents said they think the climate is changing, compared with 65 percent in a similar poll in March. Those saying it’s not taking place fell to 15 percent from 22 percent, according to data set to be released this week by the UT Energy Poll.
Following a winter of record snowfall in 2010, the public’s acceptance of climate change fell to a low of 52 percent, according to the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, which was published by the Brookings Institution in Washington. After this year’s mild winter, support jumped to 65 percent, the same as that found by the UT Energy Poll in March.
The public’s views on climate change can be rather fickle depending on the vagaries of the seasons and day-to-day weather events. However it is possible to see a storm of this magnitude and potential devastation will likewise further shift (or solidify) public opinion just as the heat waves and droughts have.
But Sandy is different as this piece from The Nation notes:
The presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, but climate change has decided to speak to them. And what is a thousand-mile-wide storm pushing 11 feet of water toward our country’s biggest population center saying just days before the election? It is this: we are all from New Orleans now. Climate change—through the measurable rise of sea levels and a documented increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms—has made 100 million Americans virtually as vulnerable to catastrophe as the victims of Hurricane Katrina were seven years ago.
It is not merely another data point in the collective memory of the general public – it is another extreme weather event clustered with so many others.
Time scales are shortening between events so that even the most obtuse and skeptical are noting. Rare events no longer seem as rare, but a common occurrence Climate change is bursting from the confirms of IPCC reports and computer models into the public’s consciousness.
We, the human species, are a pattern seeking animal. Now we see the pattern in a storm that stretches the length of the continental shelf of the Eastern United States.
Even the most the more skeptical and disengaged minds are registering changes taking place on a planetary scale: something wicked this way comes.
The Great Awakening versus the Climate Beast: when will the voting public begin their demand for action on climate?
Among many in the activist community there is a belief – and I call it just that – the general public will undergo something akin to a “Great Awakening”.
In response to increased extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy it is believed the public will begin clamoring for action on climate change.
Put crudely, if you’re home is flooded or your crops are withering under harsh drought conditions, the lived experience will a far greater teacher than the 30 plus years of science communication.
The argument goes like this:
1/ There will be an increased awareness among the general public due to extreme weather events
2/ As a consequence there will increasing demand for solutions by those in democratic countries
3/ Politicians and political parties will adopt policies that provide solutions (i.e. renewable energy, carbon trading schemes).
Impact + demand = climate change solutions
Whether or not we will see the implementation of the “right” solutions remains to be seen.
But it is possible to detect a change in both the public’s perception and the tone of the discussion this year in response to the increasing incidence of extreme weather events across the globe.
Thus one could argue that such an awakening is emerging with the debate shifting from the reality of science to that of advocacy for solutions.
At this point, fighting climate sceptics is merely a mopping up operation: perhaps blogs such as this are on the clean up crew, clearing away the remaining detritus of climate sceptic arguments that still infect the media and political debate.
But is such an awakening of the general public – in a fashion many hope it will be – really on the horizon?
Many activists and environmentalists work on the assumption that once the public accepts the science this will flow through to policy action, the implementation of mitigation efforts and large-scale adoption of renewable energy.
But I believe it is just that – an assumption.
Perhaps nothing more than earnest (but understandable) hope: if “we” have failed, then perhaps there can be no greater teacher than something like Hurricane Sandy.
And yet despite the devastating weather across much of the US this past 12 months, ask yourself how much is climate change impacting the current US Presidential Election?
Not as much as one would expect, despite some of Obama’s vague statements on the issue.
We’ve spent nearly four decades vainly waiting for the public to come to terms with climate change and demand action from elected governments.
And the result?
Silence, indifference or at best a grudging acknowledgement that it is a problem for others in future years. Deeply encoded in this ambivalence is a mixture of self-interest (both personal and national), denial, a lack of information and appreciation of the issue and the failure of the media and politicians to lead and inform.
I firmly believe this conundrum will not be magically solved in response to increased disaster.
Increased disaster may raise deeply held existential fears: fears for one’s personal safety and well-being and that of loved ones; fear for the future of ones tribe (aka nation-state); fear of annihilation.
What political, economic and social impacts can we envision when that collective shiver of recognition and understanding pulses through the population of the world’s mega cities, shanty towns and affluent enclaves?
Do we expect people to willingly open their arms to such knowledge and receive it with calmly and react with a stoic fortitude? Ask yourself what your own reaction was, or those close to you?
Many of us who have stared directly into the maw of the climate beast have come away depressed and terror-stricken, overwhelmed by the knowledge of what is coming.
And when that beast comes for all – and now that it is here – when it closes is jaws?
What then – what then?
The half drowned world: of failed mini-states and keen intelligence’s
Disaster can bring forth the full spectrum of what is admirable in our species: the capacity for empathy, love, generosity of spirit and positive action.
And yet it can also give birth to the very opposite: fear, naked self interest, hatred and shortsightedness.
One only has to reflect upon the impact of Hurricane Katrina and fate of New Orleans in subsequent years. The city’s has been rebuilding both painfully and slowly, while many residents have failed to return.
Sadly, I fear this is closer to what many parts of the world will experience over the coming decades.
If you want a picture of the future, it will be of half deserted and flooded coastal cities in the poorer and less resilient parts of the globe.
The nations and regions with more resources and greater resilience will be the ones building seas walls (like the Dutch are doing now), shifting populations and agricultural production and investing in alternative energy sources – like or not, that will include nuclear.
Some will argue that we should begin deliberately engineering the climate to correct our mistakes – the first stirrings of this debate have begun.
In larger polities such as the United States, Russia and China the less affluent and resilient regions will become something akin to failed mini-states within larger national entities. Internal displacement, and the redirection of resources from these failed and climate ravaged regions will see their abandonment and decline.
These will be the sacrifice zones of climate change.
While many drown, starve or die in conflicts over resources, others will run mitigation and adaptation initiatives through a cost benefit analysis.
Should we build that sea wall for that community?
Should we surrender our economic or military advantage over competitor nations or neighboring states?
Should we transfer that technology to this or that developing nation?
And what of the climate refugees – should we open our borders to them?
Do we have a duty to assist them?
If you think the climate change debate is intractable and vicious now, just watch the tone of the debate over the coming years.
It is possible – perhaps likely – the response to climate change across the globe will devolve to the national and sub-national level, as nation states make hard-headed calculations about how they can absorb the costs of climate change.
Central to their concerns will be how to preserve their military, economic and social dominance – and maintain control of vital resources – at the regional and global level.
One need only look at the United States recent proposal to abandon attempts to limit average temperature rises beyond the 2c degree “safe limit”.
It is hard to believe that in the early twenty first century, as we busy ourselves with our affairs, keen intelligence’s are making assessments about what is worth preserving and what may have to be abandoned to the rising seas and temperatures.
The costs may be terrible and the loss of life horrific but, based on their “clear-headed” and “pragmatic” analysis, some will argue it is better to lose an island nation or two or even several of one’s own crop growing regions than surrender global, regional or economic hegemony.
Many of us will oppose the injustice of such inhuman logic.
But there will be those who will cheer on such brutality in the name of pragmatism and national sovereignty.
What then – what then.