Watching television this week, as Hurricane Sandy descended on Washington, DC, and meteorologists scurried to remain atop the latest forecasting, myriad presidential election campaign advertisements were met with one major marketing competitor: the American Petroleum Institute and its various oil, coal and gas bedfellows.
It was ironic, really, to watch “Vote 4 Energy” commercials – encouraging us to use the dirty fossil fuels that created the climate pretext for the oncoming super storm – as the wind and rain whipped up around my Anacostia neighbourhood in southeast DC.
But even before Hurricane Sandy touched down in the District, this week in television witnessed something even more disconcerting vis-à-vis climate change.
Airing on PBS, “Climate of Doubt” took an in-depth look into how the climate change bill in Congress got shut down by Republicans and how conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity (AFP, funded by the Koch Brothers) sowed doubt in the American mind through intimidation and false science promulgated by non-scientists.
Global warming and Frankenstorm
Thankfully, I know from recent data provided by the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication that the majority of American public doesn’t believe CEI, Heartland, or AFP and, in fact, knows that climate change is happening, recognises that human activity is warming the planet and thinks policymakers should do something about it.
Yet, while there is some chatter among meteorologists, reporters, and city and federal officials about climate change’s connection to Hurricane Sandy – also known as Frankenstorm or Super Storm – there is not enough. Without question, storms are becoming more severe and it is attributable to our warming climate and seas and our melting ice caps (the lowest ever on record). With the hottest year so far on record, we should take heed to the warning of the scientific consensus.
But there are two key obstacles that stand in the way of us preventing more Frankenstorms from ever reaching our shores.
The first is obvious and has to do with our lifestyles. Americans, especially, are heavy carbon users at nearly 25 tonnes of carbon per person every year. Compare that with China at nearly 5 tonnes and India at less than 2 tonnes. That means we need to eat greener, transport greener, procreate greener, etc. You get the point.
The second point is less obvious and has to do with our attraction to danger and fear and the positive reinforcement we receive when a storm hits our community. This may sound harsh but think about it. America is an incredibly fractured and individualistic society, but when a storm approaches, we rally together, we become a community and we support our neighbours in need.
The large amount of emails and phone calls I received from friends near and far – before, during and after Hurricane Sandy – is testament to the fact that we are different society during a storm. In fact, I got emails from friends in Pakistan and Indonesia. As much as I hate the tragedy, I like what we become during it. We become a family, we become a community, we take care of each other and we are one. In fact, on the first day of Hurricane Sandy, my neighbours and I rallied for a big brunch and movie watching. It was great.
“Americans, especially, are heavy carbon users at nearly 25 tonnes of carbon per person every year.”
Reinforcing community values
But here’s the problem. If we are positively reinforcing community values primarily during climate-related tragedies (and the same goes with America’s war on terrorism, its similar tragedies and our collective response), we may well be disinclined to prevent that tragedy from recurring and subconsciously reinforce practices that create more tragedies, and thus, more community building opportunities. Again, like with our response to climate change, so too with our response to terrorism.
The solution, then, is to find alternative community-reinforcing activities so that we’re not continuously, and subconsciously, attracted to climate change and terrorism tragedy. The latter approach is simply not sustainable and spells the end of humanity if we can’t extract ourselves from that fixation.
The good news is that the activities necessary to prevent both climate change and terrorism are inherently pro-community: from going green (that is, more walking in the community, more public transit, more local farming and gardening, more local trade), to shielding communities from extremist recruitment, which means reducing poverty and increasing economic and educational access and opportunity for everyone. This is what we need to focus on and fast.
As Hurricane Sandy exits our coasts, we must not forget what brought it here and with such ferocity. In part, we did. And we have the power to make sure a super Frankenstorm never hits our shores again. The answer lies within us, as carbon users and community members. Vote 4 That. It’s the only thing that will keep us all alive.
Michael Shank is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.