By Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, and a good friend of the Herald-Guide.It wasn’t Katrina, not even close, but Seattle’s storm of the century was no picnic. It gave me one more a taste of a future where the weather can suddenly turn – and destroy the habitability of our world.
The ground was already soggy from the wettest November in Seattle history, and as the wind and rain uprooted trees, many fell on houses and cars, blocked roads and took down local power lines, cutting off heat and light to over a million residents in the city and surrounding areas.
Thirteen people died. Sanitation systems overflowed, dumping tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Puget Sound. A week later, nearly a hundred thousand people were still living in the cold and the dark.
The December storm dominated our local news and made national headlines, preceding the blizzard that stranded five thousand travelers at the Denver airport. Both storms fit the predictive model of extreme weather events caused by global climate change, and ours fit the specific predictions for our region. But other than a single Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist, I found no media commentator who raised the link to global climate change.
This failure to draw broader conclusions is disturbing. Last May, New England made national news with the worst storms and floods since a 1938 hurricane. In June, a 200-year storm flooded the Mid-Atlantic region.
In July, in St. Louis, thunderstorms knocked out power to three quarters of a million people (the city’s largest power loss ever), and then freezing rain returned in early December, two weeks before the Seattle storm, to leave another half million people without power for up to a week.
Missouri and Illinois had record numbers of tornadoes, and western states record levels of forest fires. Meanwhile New York City saw balmy winter temperatures in the 60s.
Although you can’t absolutely prove a specific exceptional event was triggered by global warming, they all fit the larger predicted pattern. Yet mainstream commentators drew few broader links.
As Mark Twain once wrote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.”
Commentators certainly talked about these events, but by failing to place them in any broader context, they made it that much less likely that ordinary citizens will do anything to change a future that risks looking seriously ugly.
America’s major media haven’t been entirely silent on global warming. You could even say 2006 brought a sea change in their public acknowledgment of its gravity. If you really read the superb Time or Parade magazine cover stories, or even the coverage in Business Week and Fortune, you couldn’t fail to be concerned.
Newspapers and TV networks have featured pictures of melting glaciers, drought-parched Australian farms, crumbling Arctic ice shelves, the October-November floods that affected almost two million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, and the submersion of the Indian island of Lohachara, which once had 10,000 inhabitants, by a combination of erosion and rising sea levels
Except in the case of Katrina, however, major media outlets treated most of America’s extreme weather events as if wholly separate from the broader global shifts.
They did nothing to help people connect any particular event with any other, or to understand the broader patterns.
We can feel the force of the wind and the rain – and when a fifty-year old tree topples or a storm floods our basement, it’s tangible. But the shifts increasing the likelihood and frequency of such disasters are far harder for us to comprehend.
It would be easier if these storms were like earthquakes, beyond our influence or control. Then we could simply hope they don’t happen to us and do our best to minimize their potential impact, as we do when retrofitting houses and commercial buildings for earthquake safety.
Global warming brings a more demanding challenge, because its most destructive potential can be prevented. Extreme weather events could once be called acts of God.
Our actions have changed this, feeding the ferocity and frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, floods and every imaginable kind of storm. The longer we deny this, the higher the cost.
Public concern about global warming has been increasing. In a June 2005 poll, shortly before Katrina hit us with a disaster of Biblical magnitude, 59% of Americans said they believed global warming threatens future generations. Now, the response is over 85%.
Support is even coming from unexpected quarters, as when National Association of Evangelicals Vice President Ted Cizak enlisted 86 other prominent evangelical leaders (including the presidents of 39 Christian colleges and bestselling author Rick Warren), to sign a New York Times ad stating “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.”
These are hopeful developments that are due not only to the disasters we’ve encountered, but also to the persistence of scientists and citizen activists in speaking out, including the impact of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.
Louisiana is working hard to recover from Katrina, and for many, life is slowly, slowly moving toward normalcy. The lights are back on in Seattle.
Now the more difficult questions emerge, about how to prevent future catastrophes. The disasters and near disasters in cities throughout America should serve as wakeup calls.
But their ultimate impact will depend on what we’re willing to learn from them.