From Goldilocks to Huff and Puff and Blow Your House Down (10/31/2012)

by E. Johnston

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hurricane Sandy is that a storm so unprecedented—“there’s no one that is not 300 years old that has ever seen anything like this,” said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers—could hit our densest population center (not to mention hundreds of miles on either side of it) and cause dozens rather than tens of thousands of deaths. This is thanks, of course, to scientists (especially those at the National Hurricane Center) and the incredibly sophisticated modeling they can do these days. Everyone had plenty of warning, even if some were dismissive because Irene (or some other storm) hadn’t been as bad—for them, at least—as they’d been warned it might be.

It’s also modeling that tells us (roughly) what Cuomo spoke of yesterday: that hundred-year storms might now be something we’ll have to contend with every couple of years. Something similar is our future—no, ourpresent—as regards droughts.

The future is here, and it’s happening to us. It’s been happening for some time; seas and temperatures have been rising for decades, and climatologists have been tentatively connecting the likelihood of (never the individual fact of) extreme weather events—Russia’s intense drought of 2010, Pakistan’s almost unimaginable flooding of 2011 and 2012, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the deathly European heat wave of 2003—to climate change, for a long time. But it’s getting to the point where we can’t pretend anymore: this is not normal.

Or, rather, it wasn’t normal. Now it is. This is what we’ve wrought by believing that growth could come first, and attention to the laws of physics (not to mention the law of unintended consequences)…rather later. Without even knowing it—we surely suffered heat and cold; we surely had terrible storms and droughts—we lived in a Goldilocks world: not too hot, not too cold. A world in which terrible droughts and storms devastated us precisely because they were so rare, and came without warning. They no longer are, and it will get far worse before—centuries or millennia before—it gets better.

But don’t worry, because cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer (I know a 90 year old who smoked all his life!), and it’s not our carbon habits that cause climate change (we’ve always had storms!). Don’t worry, because we can trust oil company-funded researchers to tell us the truth. Don’t worry, because geoengineering will save us. (Um, wait…isn’t geoengineering without adequate respect for the  limits of our knowledge of complex natural systems precisely what got us here?)

Don’t worry, most of all, because if this is the most pressing issue facing all of humanity, surely our politicians would be talking about it, and taking this opportunity to lead, and look like heroes. Right? And surely a Republican presidential candidate who once spoke of a cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution wouldn’t turn around and laugh at the notion of slowing the rising seas, right, while trotting obediently at the heels of the fossil fuel industry?

When other “superstorms” follow, and whole states look like Atlantic City did on Monday, will we wake up then?

Sometimes, the models are indeed imperfect: a storm might veer off to endanger someone other than the one warned, it might weaken, it might harmlessly dissipate. But when all the models are in near-lockstep agreement, as they were last week—and as they are on the future that we’ve bought and paid for with our addiction to fossil fuels—it’s time to pay attention.