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Hurricane Sandy and Environmental Catastrophe

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By Rabbi Michael Lerner

Perhaps the most generous teaching of the God or Spiritual Reality of the Universe comes in the second paragraph of the Shma prayer (in Deuteronomy), where it tells us that if we do not create a world based on love, kindness, generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, social justice, and peace then the world itself will not work, and there will be an environmental catastrophe and humans and all other animals are in danger of perishing.

These are not the words of an angry patriarch threatening to do this to us, but rather a kind warning that the universe is sending us–a warning that tells us that the ethical and the physical are intrinsically bound together in such a way that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, materialism, and endless consumption without regard to the consequences for the earth, disaster will follow.

Growing up, I thought this an extravagant and foolish claim tied to an authoritarian, patriarchal, and judgmental god in whom I could not believe; but as an adult I encountered environmental science and learned that it was all true. There are now a host of books that show the concrete steps that lead from ethical irresponsibility toward the earth and toward each other to the resulting environmental crisis (and we regularly review them in Tikkun magazine).

Hurricane Sandy is only the latest manifestation of this truth, and compared with what is coming, a relatively mild reminder. Bill McKibben, who often writes about these issues in Tikkun, recently discussed Hurricane Sandy and climate disaster with Amy Goodman and climate scientist Greg Jones. It’s very well worth your time to listen to it. Here’s an excerpt:

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Medford, Oregon, broadcasting from Southern Oregon Public Television.

Much of the East Coast is shut down today as residents prepare for Hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that could impact up to 50 million people from the Carolinas to Boston. New York and other cities have shut down schools and transit systems. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been evacuated. Millions could lose power over the next day. The storm has already killed 66 people in the Caribbean, where it battered Haiti and Cuba.

Meteorologists say Sandy could be the largest ever to hit the U.S. mainland. While not as powerful as Hurricane Katrina, the storm stretches a record 520 miles from its eye. Earlier this morning, the National Hurricane Center said the hurricane’s wind speed increased to 85 miles per hour with additional strengthening possible. Describing it as a rare hybrid “superstorm,” forecasters say Sandy was created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm. The storm could cause up to 12 inches of rain in some areas, as well as up to three feet of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains. Flooding is also expected to be a major problem. The National Weather Service has warned of record-level flooding and “life-threatening storm surges” in coastal areas. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced it’s taking special precautions for the storm. There are at least 16 nuclear reactors located within the path of the storm. Six oil refineries are also in the storm’s path.

While the news media have been covering Hurricane Sandy around the clock, little attention has been paid to the possible connection between the storm and climate change. Scientists have long warned how global warming would make North Atlantic hurricanes more powerful. Just two weeks ago, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a major study on the connection between warmer sea surface temperatures and increase in stronger Atlantic hurricanes. The report said, quote, “In particular, we estimate that Katrina-magnitude events have been twice as frequent in warm years compared with cold years.”

We begin today’s show with two guests. With me here in Oregon, we’re joined by Greg Jones, climate scientist and professor of environmental studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream is Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org. He’s author of numerous books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. On November 7th, 350.org is launching a 20-city nationwide tour called “Do the Math” to connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Bill McKibben. Bill, you’ve just made it back to Vermont, to your home. Can you talk about the significance of what the East Coast is facing right now?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I think, Amy, that the first thing is this is a storm of really historic proportion. It’s really like something we haven’t seen before. It’s half, again, the size of Texas. It’s coming across water that’s near record warmth as it makes its way up the East Coast. Apparently we’re seeing lower pressures north of Cape Hatteras than have been ever recorded before. The storm surge, which is going to be the very worst part of this storm, is being driven by that huge size and expanse of the storm, but of course it comes in on water that’s already somewhat higher than it would have been in the past because of sea level rise. It’s—it’s a monster. It’s—Frankenstorm, frankly, is not only a catchy name; in many ways, it’s the right name for it. This thing is stitched together from elements natural and unnatural, and it seems poised to cause real havoc. The governor of Connecticut said yesterday, “The last time we saw anything like this was never.” And I think that’s about right.

AMY GOODMAN: There certainly was a lack of discussion, to put it mildly, in the presidential debates around the issue of climate change.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think it was raised at all in the three debates.

BILL McKIBBEN: How do you think Mitt Romney is feeling this morning for having the one mention he’s made the whole time? His big laugh line at the Republican convention was how silly it was for Obama to be talking about slowing the rise of the oceans. I’d say that’s—wins pretty much every prize for ironic right now.

There has been a pervading climate silence. We’re doing our best to break that. Yesterday afternoon, there was a demonstration in Times Square, a sort of giant dot to connect the dots with all the other climate trouble around the world. Overnight, continuing in Boston, there’s a week-long vigil outside Government Center to try and get the Senate candidates there to address the issue of climate change.

It’s incredibly important that we not only—I mean, first priority is obviously people’s safety and assisting relief efforts in every possible way, but it’s also really important that everybody, even those who aren’t in the kind of path of this storm, reflect about what it means that in the warmest year in U.S. history, when we’ve seen the warmest month, July, of any month in a year in U.S. history, in a year when we saw, essentially, summer sea ice in the Arctic just vanish before our eyes, what it means that we’re now seeing storms of this unprecedented magnitude. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play the clip you’re referring to of Mitt Romney at the Republican convention in Tampa.

MITT ROMNEY: President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney at the conventions, but—at the Republican convention. But again, when it came to the presidential debate, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney raised the issue of climate change. I wanted to bring Greg Jones, climate scientist and professor of environmental studies here at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, into the conversation. The connection between the superstorm we’re seeing and climate change?

GREG JONES: Well, this is clearly a very unique event. And I—as a climate scientist, to some degree, I kind of worry that these type of unique events are clearly more frequent in the future. We have the conditions that have produced something that could be very damaging for the East Coast of the United States, and I often wonder why we don’t seem more of them. But, you know, the question is, today is, is that where we are in terms of our climate science understanding of these things, the rarity of this event is what makes it very unique. And I think all of the conditions came together to produce a superstorm. And we’ve had a few that have been close to this, but given the number of people involved and the location where it’s coming onshore, it’s a very problematic event.

The full transcript is posted here.

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