In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we can choose to ignore scientific warnings about climate change—or we can choose to act.
Never has a hurricane been more aptly, if tragically, named than Sandy, the superstorm that flooded New York City and battered much of the East Coast. At press time, the storm had killed at least forty-three people and caused an estimated $32 billion 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 epitomizes 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. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
Hurricanes are fueled by hot ocean surface temperatures. The Atlantic Ocean is about five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual this fall, and as Katharine Hayhoe of the University of Texas has noted, about 15 percent of this extra heat is directly due to global warming. 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.
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 civilization 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 favored 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 350.org and allied organizations 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.