Hurricane Sandy as Greek tragedy

The challenge of climate change is no longer a technical one, if it ever was – it has always been primarily political.

Hurricane Sandy
Scientists' warnings have been by and large ignored - at least within the corridors of power in Washington, DC [Reuters]

Never has a hurricane been more aptly, if tragically, named than Sandy, the super-storm which has flooded New York City and battered much of the East Coast. At press time, the storm had killed at least 88 people and caused an estimated $32bn in damages to buildings and infrastructure – figures expected to increase in the coming days as emergency personnel pick through the wreckage – and left 8 million homes without electricity. 

Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomises tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse:  Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. Which is the essence of tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless. 

And so it has been with America’s response to climate change. For more than 20 years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather: summers like that of 2012, when the United States endured the hottest July on record and the worst drought in 50 years; mega-storms like the one now punishing the East Coast.  

Hurricanes are fuelled by hot ocean surface temperatures; the Atlantic Ocean is about 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual this fall, and about 15 per cent of this extra heat is directly due to global warming, Katharine Hayhoe of the University of Texas has noted.  The flooding unleashed by Sandy is especially destructive, Kayhoe adds, because global warming has caused sea levels in the New York region to rise by one foot over the past century.  

But scientists’ warnings have been by and large ignored – at least within the corridors of power in Washington, DC. As in the myth of Cassandra, today it remains unclear whether even the latest catastrophe – the devastation of America’s greatest city, its centre of commerce, finance and, tellingly, the news media – will cause the nation to wake up and take serious action. 

Continuing climate silence

There are signs of hope. Speaking Tuesday in Minneapolis, former president Bill Clinton called out Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for ridiculing the idea of fighting climate change, thereby becoming the first political heavyweight to explicitly link Sandy with climate change. Slowing the rise of the oceans, as candidate Barack Obama pledged to do in 2008 but which Romney mocked in his address to this year’s Republican national convention, sounds like a pretty good idea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Clinton said, adding, “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could have done that yesterday.”  

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a press briefing Tuesday morning, did not raise the climate connection himself but did affirm it. “We have a 100-year flood every two years now,” Cuomo said he told president Obama by telephone. “Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic shift in weather patterns is denying reality,” Cuomo added.  

Obama himself, however, has not linked Sandy with climate change, thereby continuing the climate silence that has characterised both his and Governor Romney’s presidential campaigns. Climate change went completely unmentioned in all three of the Romney-Obama debates, as well as in the debate between vice president Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. This was historic: It marked the first time since 1984 that climate change was not discussed in any of the campaign debates. 

And when Obama was finally questioned about the omission, last week in an interview with MTV, what was his response? Obama said he was “surprised” that climate change hadn’t come up in the debates – as if he himself had nothing to do with that result. After all, he’s only the president of the United States. Yet, somehow Obama found plenty of time in the debates to brag about the record amount of oil drilling and pipeline laying his administration has presided over. 

As bad as the presidential candidates have been, the mainstream media continues to treat climate change as a third-tier issue that matters only to a niche audience of environmentalists. Moderating the second Romney-Obama debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley did an admirable job of keeping the discussion moving and correcting candidates’ misstatements. 

But she reflected the media’s inside-the-Beltway mentality when she later explained why she had not brought up the climate issue.  She had thought about it, she said – apparently she had been deluged with requests to do so from what she called “you climate people” -but in the end decided that the economy was really the issue people wanted to hear about. 

Tell that to the insurance industry, which now faces at least $20bn in damage claims following Hurricane Sandy. Tell it to America’s taxpayers, who are on the hook for an estimated $10-12bn in additional uninsured damages – a figure that happens to equal the amount taxpayers already provide in subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries that are most responsible not only for causing global warming but also for blocking government action against it. 

“How about instead of using our money to fuel climate change, we start using it to help people and stop future disasters?”asks Steve Kretzmann, executive director of the NGO, Oil Change International.  

Above all, tell it to Valerie Baulmer, the heartbroken mother of 11-year-old Jack, who was killed with his best friend, 13-year-old Michael Robson, when the ferocious winds of Hurricane Sandy blew down a tree that smashed the Baulmer’s house in New Salem, New York. “I lost my son,” Baulmer wailed as she fell into the arms of the boy’s uncle.  “I lost my son.”  

The challenge of climate change

If there were any poetic justice, this super-storm “would be named Hurricane Chevron or Hurricane Exxon, not Hurricane Sandy”, wrote Bill McKibben, the author and founder of the activist group 


 Storm Sandy batters US east coast

By funding the disinformation campaign that has frightened elected officials out of taking action and left the United States as the only country in the industrialised world where the scientific consensus on man-made climate change is seen as somehow controversial, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry have made catastrophes like today’s both more likely and more deadly. 

But ours need not be a Greek tragedy. Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there is no reason to continue disregarding scientists’ warnings about where our current path leads. Nor is there reason to doubt that a better path is possible. 

The solutions we need – a dramatic increase in energy efficiency; a rapid shift to solar, wind and other clean energy sources; a reversal of our current government subsidy patterns to champion climate-friendly rather than climate-destructive policies; and much else – are already available. Moreover, they promise to advance economic prosperity and summon the best of the American people and spirit.  

“We are free to make choices,” says Betsy Taylor, an environmental activist who leads the NGO, Breakthrough Solutions. 

“We can choose to garner all of our ingenuity, our workforce, our schools, churches, farmers, youth, and military to transform our buildings, transit systems, food systems, and power sources to become the most efficient, clean energy economy on the planet. Or we can keep drilling and live with the nightmare of extreme droughts, floods and storms. And if fossil fuel companies stand in our way, they underestimate the fury of mothers and fathers who will lay down their lives to stop the drilling and protect their children.” 

The challenge of climate change is no longer a technical one, if it ever was. The challenge has always been primarily political, political and ultimately economic, as exemplified by the de facto veto power the richest industry in human history, Big Oil, has long exercised over US federal policy. 

We as a civilisation have known for more than 20 years how to stop global warming: We have to stop burning so much fossil fuel. But Big Oil won’t hear of it. They’d rather relocate the Farm Belt, as Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson recently suggested, than leave the last drop of petroleum unburned. 

The question Hurricane Sandy really raises, then, is how long Big Oil will be allowed to hold the government of the United States hostage. How long will Exxon-Mobil’s business plans take precedence over the wellbeing and indeed survival of our children? Neither of the two presidential candidates provides great inspiration on this point, though Obama is at least willing to talk about the problem, as when he advocates eliminating some taxpayer subsidies to oil companies. (Romney, for his part, thinks Big Oil has not been favoured enough by Washington.)  

But no president can cross Big Oil in the way that is required to defuse the climate crisis without the help of a powerful and sustained popular movement. If Hurricane Sandy contributes to building such a movement – and McKibben and his fellow activists at and allied organisations are launching a national tour shortly after Election Day that aims to do just that – America might still avoid the curse of Cassandra by heeding her warnings at last. 

Mark Hertsgaard, a Fellow of the New American Foundation and the environment correspondent for The Nation, is the author of six books, including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. 

A version of this article first appeared on The Nation.