Connections: Here We Are

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle December 2012, Vol. 53, No. 12, p. 53

My friend Leslie has lots of expressions. A favorite is, “Wherever you go, there you are.” That applied to Leslie, who moved to Brazil to change her life, realized she was still the same person, and came back home (where she is still Leslie). It is an expression that holds true for the temporal dimension as well as the spatial dimension. Remember when you were 15 and figured that when you turned 30 or 40 you would magically morph into an adult, unrecognizable to your younger self? I can report that at 53, I am still Sally. Worse for wear and tear and maybe, just maybe, a little wiser. I realized recently that this also holds true for climate change.

When I first started understanding the gravity of the potential changes to our world with climate change I was overwhelmed. I remember driving to pick someone up at the airport and wondering how long we would be able to keep driving like that. Would major restrictions be put into place to curb this catastrophe, when our world would morph into a different place? Would we end up like the dinosaurs or would we magically transform to the Jedi? This fall I came face to face with the realization that climate change is already here. As it turns out, the advent of climate change, just like moving to a different place or aging those few decades, doesn’t come with a magic switch or instant transformation. We are all still here and we pretty much act the same and look the same while this crisis has started to unfold around us.

My first direct contact with climate change in the here and now came about a year and a half ago. I went east for a vacation, spending two weeks at the beach with Leslie and her husband. The vacation ended early and not pleasantly with the arrival of Hurricane Irene. Hurricanes on Long Island are not unheard of. In fact I can tell stories of at least two others that had impacted me directly over 40 years of trips to Long Island. We decided to leave the beach house early and headed to the Catskills in upstate New York. From past experience, I knew that hurricanes either went up the New England coastline or petered out quickly after making landfall. They did not go to upstate New York. Or at least previously they did not go there. However, Hurricane Irene did traverse upstate, destroying my vacation (an unpleasant but not life changing event) and much more importantly, several towns in New York and Vermont. This quickly became a bad memory as routines back home were reestablished. I did not come home feeling like the world was a different place. Those people in those towns that were destroyed — that is another story.

This year, the trip east was a series of college tours with my son at the end of October. This year was Hurricane Sandy. Sandy did not come 15 years after Irene. Sandy did not come during the peak of hurricane season. Sandy came at the very end of October just over a year after Irene. Again, for me this was not life changing. We waited out the storm at a friend’s house. The power went out and it was scary, but the next morning we got in the car and headed to Williamstown where you could plug your computer into any outlet and the latté at the new coffee shop in town was delicious. Another hurricane, another story.

Not Really The Same

My point with this chatter is that for those of us lucky enough not to have been impacted directly in an irrevocable way, we are still the same. We have not morphed into superheroes, the world looks pretty much the same and our routines continue. But once again, if you were one of those with a house on the Jersey Shore, or on Long Island or Lower Manhattan, it will be a long time before mundane replaces catastrophe.

I had expected climate change to hit us with a big, worldwide bang. I had expected us to wake up to a new world. I had hoped that when we woke up, we would be ready to face it with the superpowers we needed to carry on. That is not the case. Climate change has started with weather that does not follow our normal patterns, and then goes to much greater extremes than we are accustomed. In the U.S., you can argue that it started with Hurricane Katrina. You can say that the drought in the central part of the country that withered the corn and soybeans this summer was ground zero. Or you can say that it was Irene or Sandy. Or you can pretend that it isn’t here at all and likely never will be.

Reading about Sandy, you find out about the construction site in Brooklyn that is built higher than the City code by about four feet in anticipation of rising sea levels. That site was fine and dry through the storm. You can read about floodgates in London and Amsterdam where climate change is real and about whether New York is ready to make that kind of investment. You can read about the dollars that rebuilding after this storm will cost. You can wonder when we will have the will to spend those dollars to stave off even worse storms and prepare for those that it is too late to prevent.

We have nowhere else to go. And here we are. While Spiderman will not come to save us, a realistic evaluation of the infrastructure changes we need and the resources to build them will make us seem a lot more like we have superpowers. Being honest and upfront politically instead of pretending all is well and fine is a critical way to start. Just ask Governors Cuomo and Christie. Giving people tools to do something to fight climate change is a critical component of this. If people have tools, they are much more likely to use them. It may not happen overnight, but with time and education and resources, it will happen. We may even start acting like adults about this, and not even mind the wrinkles.

Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington.edu.

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