It’s a pity the old Greeks, who loved monumental visual ironies—cruel sight gags on the grand scale, like the living Antigone sealed in a cave while her dead brother moldered unburied—couldn’t watch what was happening in America during the last two weeks.
There was an election here, one that narrowly escaped being halted by a freak storm, a hybrid that combined the behavior of a hurricane with that of a nor’easter. In New York City alone it did an estimated $20 billion worth of damage.
Water filling the streets of Atlantic City, covering the floor of the Stock Exchange and the subway tunnels in New York; the images were repeated time after time on the Weather Channel and other networks. Before and after that, we saw the faces of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, each assuring us that the country would go to rack and ruin if the other were elected, neither talking about the imperative to deal with climate change.
That’s the irony: the upheaval that was Sandy came within a relatively few days of stopping the election. It was a shout from nature more powerful than political voices, or at least it should have been.
By now, climate change—which insurance companies believe in if conservatives don’t—has turned thousands of people in our own country into refugees of sorts. This year’s wildfires in the West destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Their former occupants will be voting this year—if their residencies are sufficiently sorted out—as will victims of flooding in other parts of the country, and victims of last year’s wildfires. There are victims of Katrina who are still struggling in New Orleans, and as Mike Tidwell wrote in The Nation last week, all Eastern seaboard city dwellers are from New Orleans now.
Closer to home, there are people in Springfield who have never been entirely rehabilitated since the tornado struck in June, 2011. From California to Massachusetts, schools are hard pressed to serve children who are homeless for reasons related to climate as well as economics.
The concept of national security needs to expand beyond considerations that are political and military. To many of us, a disaster not caused by a hostile individual or state isn’t a national security issue. But global warming is a national security issue. People have died because of weather disasters, and more would have without costly preparations and responses. And in a time when the economy is a pressing issue, the effect of extreme weather events on personal and local finances is catastrophic.
Not all climate-related catastrophes happen in a moment of time. This year’s drought, which created dustbowl conditions for many farmers and devastated the corn crop, highlights the fact that the huge Ogallala aquifer, which feeds agriculture in our Midwest, has for years been drawn down faster than it can be replenished. A threat to American agriculture is a threat to our food supply and the world’s, since America is a leading exporter of food. If peak oil (the point after which the supply begins to diminish) was a sobering concept, the peak water experts have talked about for a few years now ranks as extremely alarming.
Apart from his emphasis on green energy, Obama’s undeniable accomplishment on the climate front is his mandate for increased fuel efficiency, which will raise the standard to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by model year 2025. In other respects, the United States has so far missed its opportunity to lead the world on the issue. Families building green homes and refitting older homes with solar and geothermal technology, communities using more and more alternative energy, businesses going in for large-scale, innovative energy-saving technologies, are everywhere in our country, but the lack of leadership in Washington is a resounding, tragic failure.•