Hot or Not?

Alfred Wallis, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, ~1932.

1. It seems impossible to carry on as if a hybrid super-storm didn’t just shoot upward from the southern Caribbean across the eastern U.S. seaboard. Save for the damaged trees and blown-up transformers in my neighborhood, the mild weather today bequeaths an unsettled and uncomfortable sense of closure. Since 'only' half a million Massachusetts residents lost power and much of the state appears to have dodged the veritable bullet, most people around me have kept on carrying on.

The common experience of going through a weather-related emergency with millions of other people heightens its exceptionalism. It’s an important and necessary pause button on social priorities. I’ve found it difficult to focus on much else, and not for lack of trying (in the immortally sung words of Dusty Springfield, 'I just don't know what to do with myself. Don't know just what to do with myself'). Some have it better; some have it much, much worse. The only time I go through a subjective experience amidst disaster is when faced with an object, good, or commodity that can never be taken for granted but always is. This water is deliciously hot. By sheer randomness I have access to this hot water. My telephone still works. Due to arbitrary possibility the power is still on. I can have a hot meal. I have a choice between cuddling with a cat or reading a book or checking up on friends or… or… or…

Hurricane Sandy—how strange that the largest mainland hurricane to date is endowed with a pluckily informal nickname—feels like a sequel to this past summer’s ‘super derecho,’ a 700-mile path of disfigurement between the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. It was the largest non-hurricane power outage in Virginia, where I happened to be at the time, clueless to the descending destruction. My parents’ home was partially damaged, and since the water pump runs on electrical power they had to seek shelter elsewhere for nearly ten days. The house stank of unflushable toilets and rotted food.

This past weekend I found myself once again in a travel-induced media bubble, without a real sense of what was to come (though how fitting that the conference I was attending centered on 'terror and the inhuman,' and what is more terrorizing than extreme weather, nearly resistant to anthropomorphism?). The seriousness of the storm sank in with the sober realization that major satellite-tracking of heavy storms, the kind of technological foresight that potentially saves lives, has been on the receiving end of slashed budgets, ‘a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements.' Whitey on the moon and the Department of Defense budget hovers around $550 billion for 2012, but we can’t have nice satellite things.

2. Industrialization is around 150 years old. One of the failed dreams of the post-1990s environmentalist movement was a legally binding global treaty on carbon dioxide and methane emissions, long believed to be the main culprit for irreversible, human-caused global warming. Despite the overwhelming support of more than 35 industrialized countries to reduce gas emissions to below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, the U.S. (under President George W. Bush) refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001.

About a decade later, though, even modest carbon emissions caps were abandoned by American legislators.

The much-hyped and (excuse the pun) watered-down agreement that emerged from the Copenhagen Summit was non-binding. President Obama attended only as a last-minute, face-saving gesture. Much like Clinton who refrained from sending the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for review and ratification, Obama ‘did not even press the Senate to move ahead on climate change legislation.'

Thereafter the Cancún Climate-Change Summit was held with an attitude of resignation (though a large, international, peasant-led march converged on the conference as its oppositional and 'alternative' presence). After the intransigent technocracy displayed at Copenhagen a legally binding global treaty was not even on the agenda. The Guardian noted in 2010, just before the Cancún summit, that ‘climate legislation is now impossible this side of the next presidential election.' A depressing fact, to be sure, worsened by the fact that even a highly influential activist like Bill McKibben is ‘waiting till after the presidential election’ to begin a 20-city climate tour, and as Kevin Gosztola notes, playing it safe ‘by really letting Obama off the hook when it comes to his complete disregard for [climate change].’

And twenty years after George Bush Sr. attended the Rio summit to declare, 'I didn't come here to apologize,' Obama skipped the Rio+20 ordeal altogether. ('Good riddance,' came the retort from South America.)

Arguments have been put forward, like the one Michael Jacobs made, that hopes for an international agreement have been long ago buried, and that there is something reassuring about this. I find that line of thinking plausible and worth dwelling on.

[W]e need to stop thinking that an international agreement under the UN is the prerequisite for global action on climate change. Before Copenhagen it was believed that if only we could get an agreement, then national policies in every country would follow. In reality, the world works the other way round. Countries need to make domestic economic commitments which they believe they can meet—and for which they are politically accountable at home—before they will commit to a treaty.

In the dominant U.S. political establishment prioritizing 'foreign' or global policy over domestic concerns is nearly sacrilegious, and that is a main reason why executive privilege on climate treaties gets buried or resurrected as political expediency allows. But binding national agreements have been established in countries that have foregone the traditional foreign/domestic separation. The arbitrariness of extreme weather conditions aside, the countries that have successfully passed emissions measures have done so with the understanding that the U.S. will concede none of its power or responsibility. In other words, the praise-worthy 'we're all in this together' sentiment that accompanies 'natural' disaster is only as good as the social and political impasses it overcomes to improve human lives, and countries that understand this have laudably collapsed the over there/over here fallacy.

3. One commonplace thought is that rich countries have a handle on preparedness. That perception took a swift nosedive in the afterlife of Hurricane Katrina (for a cogent debate see Neil Smith's 'There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster'). But judging from the disaster visited on New York-area hospitals last night (failed back-up generators, emergency evacuations including a natal unit) the slow attrition of American infrastructure yields the kind of effects one is accustomed to seeing in far-away regions, like the horror visited on Louisiana, the devastating floods in Pakistan, or the earthquake that leveled Haiti.

4. Sandy’s lethal effects in the southern Caribbean are being frighteningly overlooked. Haiti, already facing a cholera epidemic, was especially devastated given that it has still not recovered from the earthquake. Prime Minister Lamothe’s remark that ‘the whole south is under water’ rang even more chillingly given that 370,000 Haitians are essentially homeless and living under flapping tarps. A man in the video below says that no one has visited his camp of 6,000 dwellers after the storm’s 24-hour rampage. ‘It’s as though no one knows we exist.’

Home evacuations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic are marked with dizzying numbers: 130,000 and 30,000 respectively. For anyone still foolish enough to believe that a ‘natural’ disaster is not politically inflected:

Hurricane Sandy will kill many times more people in Haiti than everywhere else combined, despite barely touching the country with tropical storm-strength winds. Sandy shows that Haiti’s real disaster is decades of policies by Haitian governments and the international community that leave the government unable to provide the basic services necessary to reduce its citizens’ vulnerability to natural stress.

5. Almost nine million homes in the U.S. are without electricity at this writing. Squarely in the 21st-century, human ecosystems are at the mercy of the power grid. It holds sway over us with an immanent and sovereign power unlike anything else. With parts of New York under water, much of the mid-Atlantic in the dark, and the Caribbean on stilts a genuine post-Sandy North-South solidarity may be too idealistic to believe in. But let no one say that we didn't dream it, or that a new phoenix couldn't yet rise from the ashes of old, failed dreams.