The Climate Wars Have Begun
I was pulling into a gas station in Austin, Texas -- a Shell station, which I normally do not frequent for political reasons -- when I saw the white Mustang plastered with writing pleading for help. “PLEASE HELP, HOMELESS,” it read. “OKLAHOMA TORNADO VICTIMS, GOD BLESS.” I stepped out of my car and eyed the vehicle, packed to the brim with stuff and a woman, who could not have been much older than me, smoking a cigarette in the passenger’s seat, sitting no more than two feet away from a gas pump.
Walking inside, I stopped at the ATM and withdrew $20, then told the cashier I wanted $10 in gas. I approached the Mustang from the driver’s side, hoping the woman would see me before I said anything. She didn’t notice, so I asked: “Hey, where are you from?” She sprang up and looked me in the eyes. “Me and my boyfriend, we’re from Moore,” she said. “We got hit by the tornado and we’re waiting on some help.”
Moore is about a five hour drive from Austin by way of Interstate 35. It’s a town I’ve been through, albeit only once. Texans and Oklahomans like to pretend they have this great rivalry, especially when it comes to college sports, but along that highway corridor it all pretty much looks the same out in the country. “You could be my neighbor,” I said to the woman, holding out a ten dollar bill. I winced as she took it; she did too. Then she popped out her cell phone and asked for my number. I didn’t see much harm in handing it over. By the time I got back to my apartment just a few miles away, her boyfriend was already calling me.
“Do you have a place to stay?” he asked. I could sense the desperation in his voice. “We don’t have any place to go,” he said. I didn’t know what to tell him, stammering, “I, I... I’m sorry I just don’t, I don’t think I have room for you guys.” He hung up immediately. The first thing that flashed through my head was, “Damn, that could not have been a fun call to make.”
We stand at the precipice of a strange new world. In aeons past, climate change has spurred change throughout nature’s great kingdom, forcing early man into caves, cold and ice lashing at his heels, pruning and splitting the great tree of life in ways we’ve yet to fully understand. And here we are again, this time facing a change brought by our own growth, our own technology and our own inherent evolutionary flaws. Since the discovery of fossil fuels, this scenario was practically inevitable.
The change that’s coming is so radical that only a precious few on the planet truly grasp its unflinching reality. If the finest of our scientists are to be believed, the disasters we are witnessing today will pale in comparison to those of our children and their children. Many of those same scientists believe we as a species have crossed a threshold of no return, displacing so much stored energy into our atmosphere over the last 100 years that there simply is no turning back from a species-altering century ahead. Humans will, once again, be forced by the planet’s climate to seek refuge in new environments.
Make no mistake about it, humanity is now and will be for the rest of our lives engaged in a war with planet Earth. This is a war to preserve consciousness, to survive as a species, and we are already taking massive casualties. That became painfully apparent to me as the nation watched in stunned amazement as the second EF5 scale tornado in less than two weeks barreled down on Moore, Oklahoma this summer -- a once-in-a-century event occurring twice just like that -- and the nation’s media didn’t know what to do other than cover it like our own backyard was Baghdad waiting for the bombs to drop.
Watching MSNBC that night was a riveting experience, as tens of thousands of Americans frantically tried to escape Moore. The network’s city-wide panning shots were the only thing that depicted the terrifying blackness creeping across the horizon, so that’s what they stuck with throughout the evening. As lightning blasts rippled across the terra and transformers exploded from neighborhood to neighborhood, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to how the media presented America’s “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq. Surely there is no real comparison between what America did to Iraq and what nature did to Oklahoma, certainly not in human costs anyway, but the images on American television screens that night were strikingly similar to the bombing campaigns in both gulf wars that brought Baghdad to its knees that the parallels haunted me for weeks. The Oklahoma tornadoes were even followed by horrifying tales of journalists dying -- not from bombs, though: from a wall of wind two-and-a-half-miles wide, gushing near 300 miles per hour.
The casualties grew yet again this month with the 19 firefighters who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty fighting a blaze in Arizona just weeks ago. These elite firefighters, members of the “Granite Mountain Hotshots,” lost their lives in the worst disaster professional firefighting has seen since 1933, when 29 brave men lost their lives fighting a park blaze in Los Angeles brought on by drought conditions. It’s easy to see the connection between such tragedy and climatic conditions if you’ve ever been exposed to a real, prolonged drought like what Arizona faces right now. I’ve had the displeasure of looking it straight in the eye for several years running in Austin, Texas. Every time I catch a glimpse of Lake Travis, I cannot help but gasp as it dwindles lower and lower. It’s like this all over the state, meanwhile grass fires are becoming increasingly common and Texas Republicans seem determined to keep cutting budgets for volunteer fire departments. Great.
There were numerous climate disasters of note in 2012, but the drought was among the worst both in terms of cost and the sheer horror it inflicted, seemingly in slow motion. Insurers absorbed a whopping $20 billion in damages dealt by the horrendous summer of 2012, and by many predictions 2013 looks to be even worse. What else could $20 billion buy? Well, for starters, $20 billion could buy one a 70 percent stake in Sprint, the nation’s third largest cellular network. It could rescue the Greek economy and help stabilize the whole system of international finance, if you’d like. If you’re a millionaire Republican in Congress, perhaps the question is what could $20 million not buy -- seems like a good number to aim for when cutting programs like food assistance for poor people, right? Or, if you’re New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, scared stiff after one of the biggest storms this world has ever seen, that $20 billion would be the estimated cost of a planned array of fortress-like, climate-ready defenses for 8 million or so people. And that’s just to start, in one single city.
Sure, $20 billion sounds like a lot of money, but here’s another figure to consider: $2.5 trillion, which is how much the United Nations says natural disasters have cost humanity in just the last 13 years. What will that number look like in another 13 years? How about another 26 years? What about by the end of the century? We have only recent history to guide us in this new paradigm, but the forecast is not positive. Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, reported last year that weather-related disasters have skyrocketed five-fold in the last 30 years across North America. Even more frightening, the World Bank warned in no uncertain terms last year that climate change is on track to raise the planet’s average annual temperature by four degrees this century if we continue releasing as much industrial emissions as humanity does today.
That is a radical, species-altering prediction, or it should be anyway. It will take professional people, from all walks of life, picking up the mantle of activism and working to educate their fellow citizens about this problem. It will take radical innovations in how we generate energy, of course, but it will also take radical innovations in how we communicate with one another, how we form communities, and how those communities divide natural resources. It will take compassion for those whose livelihoods are threatened by this change, both of the climate and in our politick, and it will take time and money to mend the thousands of broken lives sure to follow future climate disasters. It will take all nations coming together to address a big problem in a big way, and to do that, we need a whole new generation of activists here in America willing to reach across partisan lines and find ways to mash issues together that bind together the 99 percent of Americans and the world’s poorest populations, all of whom are most at risk in the climate war.
That is why I have decided to join Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps., a network of activists who will fan out across the country and give presentations to business owners and boards of directors to deliver the harsh economic reality that climate change is already forcing upon us, and hopefully put that reality into understandable, human terms. I’ve given up much to do so, including a post at one of the nation’s leading progressive news websites, but that sacrifice pales in comparison to the sacrifices we’re all going to make in the years to come. No dollar amount can ever begin to accurately summarize what kind of damage we are doing to ourselves through this feedback loop in our ecosystem, but after 10 years as a professional journalist watching this thing get worse and worse, I’ve got to think that maybe I can.
Stephen C. Webster is a journalist and photographer from Austin, Texas.
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