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Will Sandy mean we finally talk climate in the US?

Will Sandy mean we finally talk climate in the US?

By Richard McLachlan

31 Oct 2012 - Sandy has now passed through, leaving carnage no-one can really have imagined – despite the preparation. It was unsafe to walk outside. Two people died under a fallen tree in our Brooklyn neighbourhood in a storm that felt no worse than a very blustery day in Wellington. It was much easier to theorise last night, before it hit:

I'm in the kitchen writing this while there is still electricity and internet to be had. The winds are already making the 100 year old house rock and the lights are flickering. Popping into the living room to check the 24 hour weather channel, I see huge damage and inconvenience is anticipated in NYC with mandatory evacuations already in place in low lying 'red zones'. They've closed Wall Street and the entire mass transit system (all subway trains and all buses) as well as all the schools. Storm surges are expected to push water back up the East and Hudson rivers. The Jersey Shore is totally vulnerable. There's been the expected talk about celebrity homes on Long Island.

'Sandy' sounds like such a mild mannered storm. I imagine a rather shy disturbance with freckles and pale blue eyes and straw-coloured hair. The way they've been talking about a storm of 'Historic Proportions', you'd expect at least 'Ghengis' or maybe 'Hecate'. Comparisons are being made to the Perfect Storm of 1991 when two weather systems met and helped each other exceed their respective potentials to create something monumental and terrifying.

The Governors of New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut are on TV surrounded by phalanxes of grave courtiers warning people to STAY HOME. There is a risk that the combination of full moon, high tide, the cold front coming from the West, and this 1,000 mile wide spiral galaxy of weather means that the sea could enter the subway system and God knows what other low-lying cavities. There are people who live down there.

The convergence of two big weather systems to create a 'Frankenstorm' is a handy metaphor when tackling a near universal refusal to discuss the changing world climate. Recent dramatic evidence for human-induced climate change (melting ice caps and acidifying oceans) has received bare mention pre-election here in the US. Senior NASA climate scientist James Hansen's statement that completion of the Keystone XL pipeline signals “game over for the planet” and all that implies has had little or no impact on the post-debate commentaries. Similarly, the press releases from the scientific community announcing that “this is what climate change looks like” have also passed largely unremarked by either political party.

The general opinion seems to be (an opinion neither cynical nor ironic) that the fossil fuel industry has shut down the discussion – should anyone want to override their self-censorship and have the discussion. Politicians are at best very vulnerable to this lobby. As if proof were needed, Chevron just gave $2.5 million to a Republican super-pac. Romney's enthusiasm for drilling and building pipelines is unseemly. Body language you wouldn't want your children to see.

If the 'undecided voters' neither need nor want to hear about climate change, it must be safe to assume Romney's (and possibly many of Obama's) 'decided' constituency feels the same way. Putting the Democrats aside for the moment, there is a sizable chunk of the US population who will not be discouraged or alarmed by talk of more drilling, more fracking, and more pipelines so long as it is cloaked in the rhetoric of energy independence. Now for the other element in this perfect storm. The low pressure front that is meeting head on with the agitated lobbying of the oil industry.

Is it possible that those who believe humans have agency in the future of our species (and other species) inhabit only a medium-sized bubble? A bubble surrounded by people who believe such matters are in the hands of God?

All three Abrahamic religions – Judaism (11.2 million globally), Christianity (2.1 billion) and Islam (1.6 billion) have in their scriptures a version of the 'end-of-days'. While clearly there are large numbers of people in each who do not subscribe, or who give the end times not so much as a second thought, there is no denying it is there in the texts.

In the Jewish scriptures, the world is set to last 6,000 years until the Messiah comes. We have roughly 250 years to go. The Charismatic and in particular, Pentecostal Christian churches tend to cleave literally to the various forms of tribulation and then rapture described in the Bible. As for Islam, the end of times (al-sa'ah or 'The Hour') is an apocalyptic vision in which the natural order of things is reversed, including the sun and the stability of the mountains and oceans – paradise for the saved and hell-fire and torment for the rest.

Is this eschatological blueprint in the scriptures, this lineage of the end-of-days shared by all the peoples of The Book, the immoveable front against which the petroleum lobby can realise its vision? This simple and familiar vision, shared with others on Wall Street and across the Atlantic, can be broadly summarised as grabbing the last of the jewelry and silver plate while heading out the back door of the collapsing house. Our unexamined assumption, our unconscious narrative that things must end – is this what stands between us and doing things to benefit descendants we'll never meet?

While the potential impact of Christian and Islamic descriptions of end times is unsettling, the United States situation demands focus on Christianity and its more lurid expressions. Here fifty-eight percent of evangelicals (viewed by some as the middle ground between theological liberalism and fundamentalism) believe Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years. In fact 41 percent of all Americans believe that Jesus either definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will return to earth by 2050. These figures come from the Pew Research Forum.

From another source, a June 2012 Gallup Poll, 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in our present form within the last 10,000 years. Forty six percent of the entire USA population believe the same thing – a proportion that has remained largely unchanged for the last 30 years according to Gallup. Another 30 percent believe humans evolved but with God's guidance.

Here in America, so different from secular New Zealand, this is no whacked out lunatic fringe. This is a big elephant, one for whom the separation of Church and State is often viewed as an obstacle to be overcome. Here Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians (known collectively as 'Renewalists') make up 23% of the population. Majorities of Renewalists in every country surveyed say it is important to them that their political leaders have strong Christian beliefs.

Those confident in their faith have no reason to fear the end of days. They will be saved or redeemed. Eighty percent of Pentecostals believe this. In fact mounting evidence of strife (brother set against brother, famine, pestilence, drought, floods) serves only to affirm the arrival of something pre-ordained, where the time for human agency has passed. The variety of pre, mid and post-rapture tribulationism and other refinements to this narrative is dizzying but ultimately, well it's in the hands of G_d and surrender to His will is the operative phrase.

It's easy as an outsider to see this as just another ethnographic curiosity. But these ancient cultural assumptions affect all of us, whether we go to Church or have left it long ago. This assumption that things end, it's part of the whole picture we inherited from our great grandparents. Recently. Its public face only really began to change in the 19th century. Our so-called 'moral' codes about boys and girls who are attracted to or, God forbid, want to marry their own, opening our secular modernist Parliament with prayers, legal clemency if you confess your crime and seek forgiveness, even our calendar; I could go on. The storm would be over before I got to the end of a list of Biblical influences on the daily life of the non-believer.

This perfect storm - the convergence of corporate venality and Christian eschatology, is that what has stalled discussion of our beautiful planet's future? I don't want end-of-days narratives, unconscious or otherwise. All of a sudden, they're no fun at all. I want continuity. I want to know our grandchildren will have a place they can live that isn't a hell. We owe it to our collective descendants to dig into this unconscious territory and examine it, or we really are living in a bubble. If we let this stuff go unchallenged in ourselves, is the natural world going to notice the difference between our denial and and their 'irrational' beliefs?

Japanese potters spent their working lives putting aside clay, aging it in pits for the generations to follow. They in turn used the clay that had been put aside for them by their predecessors. Continuity in the simplest form. Where are our models for continuity in a culture raised on end times?

Meanwhile there are sirens in the street and the trees are getting agitated.

And you know what happened next!


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