The Spectre of Sandy

Hurricane Sandy’s wind field as of 6 p.m. Sunday evening (Brian McNoldy), via Capital Weather Gang

On Friday, I shared a climate change case study with my transfer composition class, simulating what would happen in an eight-foot storm surge in New York City. The case study came from a four-day workshop at Dickinson College a couple of years ago, Cooling the Curriculum, which aimed to help liberal arts faculty integrate climate science into their courses in meaningful ways.

The storm surge simulation had been on the syllabus since last summer, but it ended up coinciding with the approach of Hurricane Sandy, which by then had already killed 29 people en route to the U.S. East Coast. While my students picked apart the data in the case study and discussed what it meant in an emergency, I pulled up the New York Times on the computer projector to show students how New York City planned to respond to Sandy. As of the middle of class, planners seemed nonchalant, saying they had no plans for subway closures and that they anticipated the storm would be much less severe than Irene.

Two nights later, the simulation has become a horrifying reality, with massive evacuations and citywide closures. For a while, it seemed like Washington, D.C., where I live, would not need to take such drastic measures, but by dusk, the National Weather Service had predicted hurricane-force winds, feet of snow to the West, and probable flooding of the Chesapeake and Potomac. Then the DC Metro, too, announced closures beginning at midnight; the rain totals shot up to a possible ten inches, and the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blogged that people shouldn’t venture outside after tomorrow afternoon because of the risk of falling trees and flying debris. Almost as alarmingly, I received robo-calls from the power company and Comcast, plus emails from a credit card company, warning of extended outages and waiving fees, respectively. (Few things are as scary as a credit card company having a fit of generosity.) We were bombarded with messages on how to prepare, along with dire advisories on how to protect pets in hurricanes. I wondered: could a hurricane-force wind lift a small dog?

Suddenly, the storm threat we’d discussed in class seemed starkly real, and the giant lollipop dwarfing the coastline looked nightmarish and psychedelic. Until I moved to DC, I have always lived in earthquake country – California, and then Seattle (the quake that damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral notwithstanding) – where catastrophe could strike without warning, which spared us the spectre of watching it approach.

To the many, many friends, students, colleagues, and family members I know who will be impacted by this storm: I am scared with you and for you. May we all find shelter, and may we all emerge from it safely.


What to Wear to the Apocalypse

Average temperature change since 1970, from

I remember when the weather used to be a safe topic of conversation. Actually, the weather hasn’t been a safe topic of conversation for about 150 years, but around the time Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, the subject became downright inflammatory.

I was an adjunct at the time, and when I heard that one of the feeder districts for the community college where I was teaching – Federal Way School District in Washington State – had placed a “moratorium” on showing the DVD and required teachers using the film in class to include a “credible, legitimate opposing view” (which, according to all but a handful of climate scientists, does not exist), I decided to incorporate it into my syllabus. The now-extinct Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported with barely concealed sarcasm that the regrettably named Frosty Hardison had contacted the School Board to oppose the film:

“Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He’s not a schoolteacher,” said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old. “The information that’s being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. … The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD.”

Frosty, in name and deed, seemed to embody all that was ridiculous about the Federal Way policy. But, in class, the film generated not controversy but daytime sleepiness. The students argued, legitimately, that an argument attached to a politician was suspect; and the lack of popular coverage of the issue, combined with my lack of knowledge at the time, made the whole topic less than engaging in class. Soon, media outlets began picking apart the facts in the film, with the drowning polar bear animations drawing particular skepticism. By the time the “Climategate” scandal hit, naysayers had so thoroughly bombarded the media with talking points that the exoneration of the UK’ s Climate Change Unit had become a lot like the absence of WMDs in Iraq: something factually true that was believed to be false. Besides, the scientists’ failed public relations strategies didn’t change scientific reality.

Awareness of global warming has finally filtered down to the general public. I was at a store earlier this week and commented at checkout, “It’s a lot hotter than advertised outside,” and, rather than a bland response, the clerk said, “Global warming! Well, we were warned the apocalypse would come in 2012…”

Here in DC, we have already had seven days over 100 degrees, including a record-breaking four in a row (so far). Millions lost power in a massive derecho; heat buckled Metro tracks, causing a derailment; we’re in the midst of the worst drought since the 1950s, with 80% of the country “abnormally dry”; up to 15 inches of rain fell in Texas; the Quileute Indian Nation of Washington State, featured in the Twilight film and book series, is facing the obliteration of tribal lands due to rising sea levels; twenty-nine square miles of Colorado is now burnt to ash. Outside the U.S., a chunk of ice the size of two Manhattans has broken off Greenland. While scientists can’t claim conclusively that warming is directly responsible for a particular weather event, they have said repeatedly that the violent weather we’ve experienced in recent years is “consistent with” what would be expected as the planet overheats. In other words, global warming has become obvious even to the average unconcerned citizen.

Unfortunately, however, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out this week in her impassioned New Yorker essay, “The Big Heat” (July 23, 2012), politicians have barely mentioned the climate. With the exception of Bill McKibben’s much-forwarded Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which has appeared in my facebook feed at least a dozen times now, the climate news that has appeared in news outlets at least every day has been largely ignored in favor of a constant barrage of election news (and now, as we process the tragic Batman shooting in Aurora, CO, with arguments about gun control). If you read only one article I’ve mentioned in this blog entry, McKibben’s is a good one, his main point being that if we burn all the fossil fuels currently in the ground, we will end up as science fiction characters in a mostly uninhabitable world.

We are rightly concerned with sublunary national issues – the 1%’s plunder of the rest of the nation, the war on women, Mitt Romney’s cruelty to both animals and humans, the fall of the JoePa statue, advancements toward legal gay marriage, the hegemony of the SuperPacs, attacks on and defenses of Obamacare. The divisions between red states and blue states have never seemed so livid, and they pour into my email and news feeds in gushes of lurid partisanship.

If you’ve read this blog once or twice, you probably have a good idea of my political leanings. But I find myself worrying about the decimation of species – in the most likely scenario, 25% of species will reach extinction by 2050 – and the disappearance of the world’s coral reefs. When I’m out walking or driving, I try to memorize the contours of plants and the beauty and sounds of birds, because probably many of them will disappear before I die. I see that I live in a wealthy country that will most likely manage to keep its grocery stores filled, unlike Kivalina, Alaska, which will soon be under the ocean; or the Sahel, which is withering away into desert. These effects will both outlast and dwarf the impact of our other social policies.

There can be no lasting social justice without environmental justice. Since life has existed on Earth, every other species has responded to shortages of food, water, and shelter with massive die-offs. Unless we make use of the science we have, the human species will be no different. We can look out at our blue universes and our red universes, but if we are living on a brown, dead planet, our politics will no longer matter.

On the other hand, maybe by fighting together to save the world, we can save ourselves; and maybe by fighting to save ourselves, we can save what’s best in our shared humanity. The first step is to try to see past the red and blue so that we can do what it takes to hold on to what’s left of the green.