At about 8 p.m. on Monday night the east facing windows in my Brooklyn apartment started to bubble and buckle inward in a deeply unsettling way. The wind howled and we thought it prudent to move ourselves away from the wall exposed to the elements. But that one moment of sharp anxiety was as bad as things got. We were lucky: Our power never went out, and my neighborhood is on high enough ground that it wasn’t flooded by the storm surge. There were a few downed trees that took out parked cars, but that was about it.
Just a few neighborhoods over, a young couple named Jessie Streich-Kest and Jacob Vogelman were out walking their dog at some point that evening when they were struck by a falling tree and killed. They are two of the estimated 109 people who’ve died due to the storm here in the U.S., a death toll that is mercifully lower than one might anticipate given the scale of the damage.
The destruction is most evident here in New York City in Staten Island, in Queens’ devastated coastal neighborhoods and in the powerless precincts of lower Manhattan, where cars roll through intersections without street lights, and commuters trundle over the bridges, walking over an east river whose waters overflowed its banks, filling the subway tunnels that connect the boroughs, and rendering much of the system unusable.
The MTA chairman said New York’s subways have “never faced a disaster as devastating.”
It’s very rare when the subways in this city don’t run, but there is something simultaneously awful and exhilarating about those moments when normalcy is suspended. New Yorkers will still tell you about the solidarity and fellowship they shared with their neighbors on their stoops on the lightless nights of the 2003 blackout, or the comfort and aid they found in each other as they fled through the streets, on foot, covered in dust, away from the falling towers. Obviously the loss of life and intensity of trauma caused by Sandy is nowhere near the scale of 9/11, but it’s fair to say the city hasn’t been this devastated since that September day. And as many unsung civil servants and first responders and utility workers labor tirelessly to get the city running again – I’m reminded that one of the raw truths of 9/11 is that the first thing a competent government must do is protect its citizens. It can’t protect them from everything, nor should it try, but we all recognized, I think, amidst the horror of 9/11 that we want our government first and foremost to keep us safe.
The state cannot eliminate senseless death, but it is its duty to reduce its likelihood. It’s a conservative insight, really, the idea that government’s job before all else is to keep its citizens secure, to protect them. Everything else comes after. Lefty that I am, I’m reminded in this moment that it contains an undeniable core truth.
And yet here we sit with a political system that can barely bring itself to acknowledge or discuss the tangible danger climate change poses to us, never mind undertake the massive, sustained effort necessary to combat and adapt to it.
Andrew Cuomo, as careful a politician as you’ll see, tried to note the elephant in the room without ever naming it.
“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents, anyone, that’s not a political statement, that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality.”
In his endorsement of President Obama this week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote,
“In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods - something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable.”
No, it’s not sustainable. Things that can’t go on, don’t. It’s true that Sandy was a freak storm, a bad-luck confluence of a number of low probability events that could conceivably have happened in some alternate climate that wasn’t warming. But this climate, our climate, is warming, and as it does, low probability events like this will become more probable, and more intense.
Carbon emissions are trapping extra energy in our atmosphere, and with extra energy come more extremes: higher sea levels, dryer droughts, hotter heat waves, and heavier, wetter storms.
We need a crash program in this country right now to re-engineer the nation’s infrastructure to cope with and prepare for the climate disruptions that we have already ensured with the carbon we’ve already put into the atmosphere, as well as an immediate, aggressive transformation of our energy production, economy and society to reduce the amount of carbon we’ll put into the atmosphere in the future.
This is as fundamental, as elemental as human endeavors get. The story of civilization is the long tale of crusaders for order battling the unceasing reality of chaos. And it is a kind of miracle that we have succeeded as much as we have, that airplanes fly through the air, and roads plunge beneath the water and the entire teeming latticework of human life exists in the manifold improbable places it does. But it is the grand irony that in imposing this improbable order on the world, we’ve released millions of years of stored up carbon into the atmosphere, which is now altering the climate and threatening the very monuments of civilization that we so cherish.
We absolutely have it within us, collectively, to beat back the forces of chaos once again. But we must choose to do so. And the time for choosing is now. You are either on the side of your fellow citizens and residents of this planet, or you are on the side of the storms as yet unnamed.
You cannot be neutral.
Which side are you on?