An Inconvenient Storm

As Sandy approached, the media compared the storm, in its scope, rarity, and composition, to the three-headed monster that hit south of Nova Scotia in 1991 and was featured in the best-selling novel and feature film, The Perfect Storm.  In addition to the multiple meteorological elements, many all but immediately started speculating about the human element that magnifies the storm’s disruptive power:  next week’s election.  But there is another dimension to the storm that makes the moniker, “perfect,” even more apt:  climate change.

The perfect storm metaphor has also recently been used by philosopher Stephen Gardiner to describe the moral architecture of climate change.  Gardiner argues that climate change is such a difficult problem to address, from moral, political, policy, and philosophical perspectives, because it is really the collision of three “storms” that involve the dispersion of causes and effects of carbon pollution, the inadequacy of international institutions to handle it, and the fragmentation of agency:  1)  a global storm (which cuts across space); 2) an intergenerational storm (which cuts across time); and 3)  a theoretical storm (our current moral frameworks cannot compute the problem).  When these storms converge, he argues, they set the stage for a subtle, insidious, and almost unconscious form of moral corruption:  it becomes easy to be distracted from the problem, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to deny responsibility, to defer action.  It creates the conditions, in other words, for precisely the negligence and carpet-sweeping we’ve seen in American politics.

As necessity is the mother of invention, so Sandy may prove to be the watershed moment, the tipping point, the event that finally concentrated the United States on the threat of climate change, in much the way that 9/11 made us focus like a laser-beam on terrorism.  Where scientists, environmentalists, politicians, and philosophers have failed, nature may well succeed.

For almost a decade, our politics was charged with fear, largely due to 9/11 and the Bush administration’s aggressive politicization of the artist formerly known as the war on terror.  But as 9/11 almost immediately became the left bookend in a new era, and now begins to recede into memory, it is easy to forget the major event that preceded it, an event that, arguably, history may prove to be more world-historically pivotal than 9/11 itself:  Bush v. Gore.  Consider three almost certain implications of a Gore presidency:

  • 1)  No Iraq War, which means less anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, no blood and treasure wasted in Iraq, and more resources diverted to Afghanistan;
  • 2)  No Bush tax cuts, which means no empty coffers when the Great Recession hits, plenty of reserves to cushion the blow, and less oxygen getting sucked out of Washington over budget negotiations, and potentially no Tea Party; and
  • 3)  an American president aggressively campaigning and raising awareness, at home and abroad, about the threat of climate change and the need for investments in clean energy.

Of course, Gore didn’t become president.  But in his advocacy for action on global warming, he pointed out something that did, in a way, come to pass earlier this week.  In An Inconvenient Truth, he showed computer simulations of projected flooding at major population centers around the world should sea levels continue to rise due to melting ice sheets.  Watch what happens to New York City:

Think of the symbolism:  that a storm could throw a nation-size monkey wrench into the physical, nuts and bolts operation of our democracy; that that storm itself was very likely amplified by climate change; that it hit in the final stretch of a political campaign that has criminally ignored the reality and threat of climate change; that the storm hit the hardest in New York City, the economic and financial capital of the country and the world, flooding the World. Trade. Center. (consider each of the three words, one by one) and the New York Stock Exchange; that it may effect the outcome of the election, and that that outcome will likely effect the scope of the efforts to combat climate change.  If that it not the return of the repressed, what is?

The storm represents the reckoning that was inevitable:  the state of denial that the country is in on a host of issues:  the unsustainable debt and deficit; the notion that entitlement programs can persist unreformed; the persistent anti-science, anti-expert, and anti-intellectual strain in the Republican party; the anti-government hysteria of the Tea Party; and the bizarre belief, born by an age nursed on the Bush tax cuts, that the occasional raising of taxes is somehow alien to the American body politic.

To these, the storm intones:  the Bush tax cuts must be repealed in total; government handles some things better than the private sector and can be a force for good and for growth; climate change is real, it presents problems for the developed and developing worlds alike, and we need to make it a top priority; entitlements must be reformed; and, finally, all of this can begin to be addressed by a Grand Bargain on the budget and deficit that put our fiscal house in order and points us in the right direction.  The economy will recover; conflicts in the Middle East will wax and wane; but the cluster of issues surrounding energy, environment, and climate will emerge as the main story and the greatest problem in the first half of the 21st century and perhaps beyond.

The philosopher and psychologist William James hoped that society would one day embrace “the moral equivalent of war.”  His idea was a kind of thought experiment:  what if we were able to muster the collective attention and enthusiasm, the will to action, we do before and during war—war as a “force that gives us meaning”—and channel that energy toward constructive ends?  This is what Thomas Friedman has been acronym-ing about for years.  Ronald Reagan, in an eyebrow raising remark, mused that it would be convenient if aliens arrived, since that would divert our attention away from the differences and conflicts between us, and bind us together in a common, human, international struggle.

While now is not the time to politicize the tragedy, as the president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, liked to say:  “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  Imagine:  if Sandy began a new chapter in our national—and international—narrative; if the president “comes out of the closet” on climate change, as he did with gay marriage, and addresses the nation:  “The debate is over.  The verdict is in.  Nature has spoken.  Climate change is real, it is a threat, it is here to stay.  The time for dithering and half-measures is over.  Sandy has proved that climate change is not just a moral issue—it is an economic and security issue.  And I am making it a top priority for the United States moving forward.”

Forward.  Obama has been casting about in search of an animating struggle, an orientating vision, a “common and higher purpose” for the country, as he used to put it in 2008—so have we as a country.  Thus far, we have mainly focused on what we are fleeing:  a sluggish economy.  But we haven’t figured out what we are moving toward—where “forward” leads.  We haven’t heard a lot about Hope and Change this time around.  But “change” is suddenly, unavoidably relevant again, though not the kind we expected:  climate change.

(Photo:  Hurricane Sandy, at

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