Freak Storms and Fossil Fuels

October 30, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Tom Moore

At the time of writing, Hurricane Sandy has already claimed 67 lives on its way through the Caribbean. Sandy is scheduled to make landfall sometime on Monday night, bringing hurricane-force winds to a huge swath of the East Coast. Writing an opinion column on the heels, or, in this case, in the midst of such a traumatic event is always a troubling experience for me. Hurricane-force winds extend 175 miles in each direction from Hurricane Sandy’s eye. It is very, very big, and I am very, very small.
Any observation I make on Hurricane Sandy is necessarily made from a place of privilege, in that I am not facing the brunt of the storm myself, and, even if I were, I have the resources at my disposal to take safety precautions that were most likely not available to the 51 Haitians already killed by this storm. My position as an essentially safe observer gives me serious pause before writing on this disaster, a disaster which is, for so many, deeply personal.
However, even as every major news outlet tells me that this “Frankenstorm” is a freak of nature, voices from the margins suggest that Hurricane Sandy is a symptomatic, rather than an aberrant, storm. As Bill McKibben writes for The Daily Beast, “[Hurricanes are] born, as they always have been, when a tropical wave launches off the African coast and heads out into the open ocean. But when that ocean is hot — and at the moment sea surface temperatures off the Northeast are five degrees higher than normal — a storm like Sandy can lurch north longer and stronger, drawing huge quantities of moisture into its clouds, and then dumping them ashore.”
The strange warmth of the North Atlantic has something to do with so-called acts of nature, but it also has a great deal to do with acts of humanity. It has to do with the single-minded profit-seeking of the fossil-fuel industry. It has to do with ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions, primarily by the nations best equipped to deal with the consequences we’re feeling right now, and not by island nations like Haiti with the most to lose. It has to do with the inaction of politicians like Obama and Romney, from whose campaigns any mention of climate change has been conspicuously absent. The only discussion of energy policy has consisted of the two of them competing as to who has been the most friendly to the exploration of new oil and gas reserves.
As Dan Lashof wrote for EcoWatch, “Just like the unprecedented droughts, flooding and heat we all experienced this year, storms like Hurricane Sandy is what global warming looks like. This is the new normal.”
It is not insignificant, though, to see this analysis made in a news source explicitly tailored toward an environmentalist audience, and not in the New York Times or on CNN. Faced with the trauma of the storm of the century, most mainstream reporters and commentators keep the blame firmly on the shoulders of Mother Nature. Making arguments about our own indirect complicity in traumatic events is indeed uncomfortable work, in part because such arguments can be painfully misconstrued as a sort of victim-blaming. And admittedly, attribution in cases like these is always a bit of a sketchy science. We may never be able to look at a weather event like Hurricane Sandy and say, unequivocally, This is a result of global warming, and without anthropogenic climate change, this weather event would not have happened. If we ever do get to that point, it will be far too late to do anything about it.
Those reservations aside, I take this sort of analysis to be precisely my role as an opinion columnist: to address and attempt to make sense of the traumatic and the uncomfortable as it relates to the reader, and thus to empower the reader to effect change. I take structural analysis of disaster to be empowering, rather than victim-blaming, work. I also take the moment of the disaster to be precisely the moment for such analytical work, however painful it may be.
If Hurricane Sandy were an isolated incident, it would be nothing but an occasion to buckle down and mourn. But it isn’t. Hurricane Sandy is what climate change looks like. As such, it is an occasion not only for keeping each other safe and for mourning the dead, but also for attacking, with renewed vigor, the structural problems that have already raised global temperatures one degree Celsius, a shift which NASA climatologist James Hansen claims has dramatically increased the chances of extreme weather events.
Our new relationship with the Earth is such that each new disaster is a new call to action. Hurricane Sandy has everything to do with the Earth First! activists whose tree village blockade in Texas has been standing in the way of the Keystone XL pipeline for over a month now. Closer to home, KyotoNOW! has recently launched a campaign to urge Cornell to divest from fossil fuels by 2020. And if electoral politics are your thing, I take both Romney and Obama to be profoundly unconscionable choices for anyone interested in leaving an inhabitable planet for the next generation. Personally, I’ll be voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
There was a time when extreme weather events were the ultimate examples of disasters completely beyond human control. For better or for worse, that time has passed. If Hurricane Sandy freaks you out, you need to start fighting like hell against the very human forces that promise only worse to come.

Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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