[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers for his TV show. It was a pleasure and an honor. The show was supposed to air last Sunday just before the election. Unfortunately, superstorm Sandy closed Moyers's operation for the week and the rest of the show was never completed. Nonetheless, the interview has now been posted online at the Moyers & Company website. To check it out, click here. For new readers coming in, the three books of mine that Moyers mentioned were The United States of Fear, The End of Victory Culture, and Terminator Planet (with Nick Turse). Tom]
Consider me lucky. Yes, Sandy made a modest mess of my life. I had to cancel a trip to Chicago (or swim down the LaGuardia Airport runway to get there). The wind roared past our window like a speeding truck. The Hudson River was a white-capped torrent. Trees in our neighborhood came down. A piece of construction scaffolding on a building across the street fell. It was unnerving, but living on a (relatively) higher part of Manhattan Island I never lost electricity or the Internet.
I didn't find myself, like a friend in Jersey, living on the 21st floor of a high-rise with no electricity, no water, essentially nothing. Unlike a friend of my daughter's I wasn't flooded out of a first-floor apartment in the low-lying neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, and didn't lose my furniture to two feet of water. I didn't end up with a basement full of sewage and fuel oil, or find myself for a week in lower Manhattan where the lights were out ("little North Korea," Jon Stewart called it), the food rotting in refrigerators, and you could hardly get cell phone reception. I didn't spend hours in endless car lines waiting for gas. I wasn't in a hospital that lost power. I didn't, like 110 people in the region, die.
So, yes, I was lucky. But my city took one hell of a hit. Honestly, when it's the Midwest and a drought that won't end, I may know what's at stake, I may truly care, but it's still happening elsewhere. When it's the place where you were born, where you grew up, which you fled and returned to, the place that's built into you, then it's terrifying.
I was also quite safe and distant when terror struck far downtown on September 11, 2001. Last Monday, terror struck again. I know it looked like "nature," not some al-Qaeda wannabe, and I'm quite aware that no specific, in-your-face weather event can definitively be linked to climate change, but let's face it, ever fewer people doubt that we are warming the planet, with disastrous weather results. And at the top of the list of those who know what's going on are the fossil-fuel companies with their unprecedented profits and unbearably overpaid executives and shareholders.
Just like those running asbestos, lead paint, and tobacco companies who knowingly continued to do harm for profit after the scientific verdicts on their products were in, energy executives undoubtedly are more aware of what the burning of fossil fuels actually means for this planet than most of the rest of us. They certainly don't know less than the reinsurance types who have launched a campaign of climate change awareness within the insurance business or New York's Mayor Bloomberg, whose magazine Bloomberg Businessweek just had the blunt cover headline, "It's Global Warming, Stupid."
And if they know and haven't taken steps to prepare us for a fierce weather future or to switch us over to an alternative energy economy, if they've just kept on pouring money and effort and ingenuity into the frizzling of this planet, then let's face it, they are the business equivalents of terrorists. In fact, for years they've funded a massive campaign to deny the reality of climate change. Only recently, Chevron made a last minute contribution of $2.5 million to a Super PAC dedicated to reelecting Republican members of the House of Representatives (who could, of course, block any legislation detrimental to an oil company). Realistically speaking, we should think of them as oil-Qaeda and we already know one thing: the strikes against us that they are at least partially responsible for are only going to grow more devastating.
Eleven years ago, three days after a terrible assault on New York City, a U.S. president arrived in downtown Manhattan, clambered onto a pile of rubble at Ground Zero, grabbed a bullhorn, and swore: "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" Then, after those who called for police action against al-Qaeda to bring them to court for their crimes were laughed out of the room, he launched a Global War on Terror. And you know where that ended up.
Today, people aren't wearing I [Heart] New York T-shirts nationwide, and no one, president or otherwise, is calling for a "war" on oil-Qaeda. Personally, I'm still for the police-and-courts route, but the best we can hope for right now is simply that, after a political season of too-hot-to-handle silence on climate change, the people who had a hand in doing this to us "will hear all of us soon!" It does seem that, dripping wet and stinking of sewage, climate change is crawling out of New York's subway tunnels and into the political light of day. TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, who has been thinking about global warming for a long, long time, offers her own assessment of just where we are today. Tom
The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse
Hurricane Sandy Rides In
By Rebecca Solnit
The first horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.
Katrina's message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure, institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these was the climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.
The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale -- of deregulation, of greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on schedule.
We called it Sandy, and it came to tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third disasters showed up. This storm's name shouldn't be Sandy -- though that means we've run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way past brutal Isaac in August -- it should be Climate Change. If each catastrophe came with a message, then this one's was that global warming's here, that the old rules don't apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30 years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have been.
That is, expensive for us, for human beings, for life on Earth, if not for the carbon profiteers, the ones who are, in a way, tied to all four of these apocalyptic visitors. A reasonable estimate I heard of the cost of this disaster was $30 billion, just a tiny bit more than Chevron's profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it's coming out of the empty wallets of single mothers in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the pensions of the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to ever-greater profits for others.