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Notes from a Small Planet: “Freak Weather” No More

Basia Yoffe
December 4, 2013

Four Octobers in a Row

by Basia Yoffe Jersey Shore 2SINCE HURRICANE SANDY until this past October, I have heard many observers describing meteorological disasters as "freak weather." Yet freak weather has now become normal weather for October. The National Weather Service classified the October 2010 storm system as having the lowest atmospheric pressure over land mass ever recorded in the continental U.S.: 953 millibars. Satellite pictures showed a huge, hurricane-like cloud over the entire Midwest. In late October 2011, the Northeast experienced an early snow storm, which left people without power for weeks. Snow falling on trees that still had leaves weighed down their limbs and brought down many power lines. Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast in October 2012, from the Jersey Shore up the Atlantic seaboard. The storm surge came within a block of my apartment building in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. By the following Passover, I had two relatives sitting around my seder table who were still not back in their homes. This past October, meanwhile, brought an early blizzard to South Dakota that killed 100,000 cattle. Distraught ranchers struggled in vain to save their herds, which were still in summer pastures and had not grown their winter fur. On Halloween, a severe storm system wreaked havoc from Texas to Boston. Terrible flooding around Austin led people to endure evacuation by helicopter. In Europe, meanwhile, "one of the most powerful storms in years," according to Time magazine, brought "gusts of 99 m.p.h.... across parts of southern Britain before heading toward mainland northwestern Europe, causing havoc in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. At least thirteen people have been reported dead and hundreds of thousands have been left without power or stranded on planes, trains and ferries." And in Australia, one thousand miles of bush fires threatened the city of Sydney. THE DISASTERS of these past four Octobers suggest a future in which climate change will bring havoc to our lives — as predicted by the climatologist James Hansen twenty-five years ago. "On June 23, 1988," Dr. Hansen wrote in the Huffington Post, "I testified to a hearing, organized by Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, that the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible. I noted that global warming enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods." Tears happyIt is, indeed, the general consensus among climate scientists now that humans are responsible for climate change. Even if I were not thoroughly convinced by the science and had doubts about humans causing climate change, I would employ the “precautionary principle," which states that if an action (the burning of fossil fuels, in this case) has a suspected risk of causing harm (to the environment, in this case), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those burning fossil fuels. Instead, rightwing lawmakers in the U.S. have stood by their supposed skepticism and continued to chant, "Drill, baby, drill!" — about both off-shore oil drilling and hydraulic fracking. IN THE FACE the face of such reckless stupidity, climate change is sure to influence all of our lives — powerfully so — and it is important that we prepare for it individually and communally. In October, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute issued a report, "Extreme Weather Events in Europe: Preparing for Climate Change Adaptation," which observes that "changes in weather patterns will be one of the principal effects of climate change and with these will come extreme weather. This is of considerable consequence in Europe as it impacts on the vulnerability of communities across the continent and exposes them to environmental risks. It is now widely recognized that failures in international efforts to agree on the action necessary to limit global climate change mean that adaptation to its consequences is necessary and unavoidable... The changes anticipated in the occurrence and character of extreme weather events are, in many cases, the dominant factor in designing adaptation measures." Unfortunately, we lack leadership on this issue at every level. We therefore must all become involved and all be leaders. In May 2008, I heard Alice Walker at the 92nd Street Y advising the audience to find loving, nurturing communities in which to live. We would need them, she said, because the world was burning. It sounded nuts to me and I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Today, after five years studying climate change as best I can, I do understand. The wilderness survival rule of thumb is that we can live three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food. But there is something else we cannot really live without: community. More and more forces in our culture are leading us towards self-interested individualism, isolation, "virtual" relationships — and huge energy consumption. Climate change is the communal price we pay for ignoring our communal needs and our interdependent realities. If you are interested in a Jewish approach to the environment, I recommend these sources: Although these are written for the observant community, they have value for secular people as well. Basia Yoffe conducts the "Notes from a Small Planet" column in Jewish Currents and is a member of our magazine's editorial board.