We Need to Avoid Just Scaring Ourselves and Then Doing Nothing After a Disaster Like Super Storm Sandy
A woman rides her bicycle through a flooded street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy caused extensive damage in the area.
Photo Credit: AFP
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There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline high of a good storm. It’s like a good horror film: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.
Just as we have come to expect this adrenaline rush from our weathermen and women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and theyare largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.
We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.
And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween, high on fear. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to get beyond the adrenaline rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility for the growing intensity of our storms. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1-degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4-degree rise looks like.
For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off. They have looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have said: We are committed to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence — not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. It does not involve instant gratification the way storm heroics do. It involves tinkering with different policies — such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries hundreds of billions of dollars, along with millions of lives. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking intergenerationally, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the Frankenstorms our children will suffer tomorrow.
Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?