The Painful Impacts of Climate Disruption – Responding to Hurricane Sandy

The Painful Impacts of Climate Disruption – Responding to Hurricane Sandy

As the waters retreat and recovery slowly begins, the silence on the topic of climate change in the election has been broken by President Obama* and the media has shifted to assessing the impacts of the storm and how communities are responding as well as the challenges many still face.  Organizations that address climate change and sustainability issues are engaging their audiences in a conversation about Hurricane Sandy and its connection to climate disruption, hoping that the disaster will at least serve as a “teachable moment” where the dots are connected between the devastation of the week’s extreme weather events, climate change, and the need to stop burning fossil fuels.

I believe Hurricane Sandy can be a teachable moment and that we should be talking about climate disruption but the way in which the connections are made across the issues and the sensitivity shown is critical.
The natural tendency is to focus on the science – whether a strong connection can be made between global warming and more frequent and intensified hurricanes and how best to convey that connection. While the science and knowing how to talk about it in a way that maintains credibility is critical, in the wake of such a disaster, it is much more important to focus on humanity and how a storm like Sandy makes us feel about our current state of security and what the trend lines mean for our children and grandchildren if we don’t start to respond.

This may sound cliché, but if you take a quick look at the climate change responses to the storm, people are sorely lacking from the picture and the messages do not convey a sense of empathy for what people are still going through. The “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” Bloomberg News visual and the related social media response can in the short term feel satisfying for those who have wanted to see action for some time. It is the scratch that reaches the itch of long-term frustration. But I think an approach focused on the facts and arguably void of compassion for people alienates those who are still coming to terms with the reality of climate disruption and what it means for all of our lives.

One of the biggest challenges we have in engaging the public in these issues is overcoming the image that those who care about environmental protection do not have the interest or concern of the average person in mind. Accusations that environmentalists care more about saving the polar bear than ensuring people have jobs and a reasonable way to get to work may be unfounded yet the framing choices groups make often reinforce these unfortunate stereotypes.

When Katrina hit, I was the vice president of communications for Earthjustice. I watched a similar reaction in the aftermath of the storm – a rushing in with facts and in some cases even with an “I told you so” tone being used to lay out arguments on how the region would have fared better if only it had protected its wetlands, if only it had addressed the over-engineered approaches of the Army Corps, etc.

Earthjustice deliberately chose a different tone. The first message from the organization following Katrina expressed deep sorrow at the human crisis. It emphasized that environmentalists work to protect people and support a healthy quality of life. That environmentalists aim to address inequities in the system, particularly around the enforcement of our laws and management of public resources. The willingness to share values and emotions and place people at the center, rather than just emphasizing the science and policy facts allowed for a honest and real exchange with Earthjustice’s audiences at a time when it was needed.

The response to this storm should be no different. Sandy is about people. It is about how climate disruption is making our lives increasingly difficult to manage and exposing us to unacceptable levels of risk that are not going away unless we shift away from burning fossil fuels. Sandy is about the way in which extreme weather events have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society and around the world.  Globally, one-third of the world’s population lives along coastlines.  Facing increasing threats from sea level rise and coastal inundation is becoming part of humanity’s new reality.

The need to express concern related to the challenge many are having around meeting basic needs – such as housing, transportation, and health care – in the wake of such a disaster should also not be glossed over. Hurricane Sandy continues to impact millions of people’s lives and is even more challenging for those with limited resources.  Responses to Sandy must take into consideration this reality and that many are not yet ready to connect the dots. Perhaps more important is to emphasize that the underlying challenge of climate disruption is about ensuring that we can all put our children to bed at night in safe, warm, dry beds.

Ultimately, responding to Hurricane Sandy is a call for preparation. Climate preparedness is the need to reduce and manage the risks associated with a changing climate in our communities. Preparation is an active frame that focuses on what can be and what people are already doing to address the threats – both by planning for the reality of a climate that warms by at least two degrees while at the same time, working diligently to reduce the threat by curbing our fossil fuel addiction. It is a frame that says enough already with arguing about scientific consensus and uncertainty. Whether you “believe” in climate change is not relevant versus whether you want to see your community and family prepared to deal with shifting climate patterns that are causing more frequent droughts, floods and fires.