Another year, another monster storm: Our leaders must act on climate change

Another year, another monster storm: Our leaders must act on climate change

I was almost 16 years old in August 1998, when Hurricane Bonnie – traveling at a sluggish six miles per hour, about the speed of a brisk jog – cut up the North Carolina coastline. But my memories of the night it chewed up my hometown are indelible.  

The pine trees bent and broke, the power transformer on the corner gave off a mechanical cough and exploded with a shower of incandescent sparks, and the house – which I’d had no call to question the fidelity of before that day – seemed to groan. 

How swiftly that heady pre-storm mixture of glee and anticipation – summoned, of course, by school closures and a break in the late summer monotony – turned to fear. 

Bonnie wasn’t supposed to be so powerful, but the storm – like a prize fighter mustering late-round haymakers – intensified as its outer reaches crept over the Tidewater.

Of course, we’d had our scrapes with tropical weather, but they usually blew themselves out on the state’s southeastern coast, on Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. They didn’t often lumber in sporadic fits and starts, or stall out over land. And I cannot recall another storm that restrengthened overhead, guzzling the warm, late-summer water just off the coast.

My fear was undercut the next morning, when I learned the sustained winds in our town fell just shy of a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest category as far as wind speed goes. I still cannot conceive of wind and rain blowing at a rate of more than twice that fast

Some doomsayers like to say everything will end in fire, but in a hurricane, which carries the ocean, like a vengeful ex, inland, you’re reminded it’s the water we should worry about first. No one in low-lying parts of the eastern seaboard – least of all eastern North Carolina – needs a reminder, during those tropical maelstroms, that the ocean only lent us the land.   

One year ago, Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters swept away homes, farms, schools, and an entire town in the coastal plain. Some parts of eastern North Carolina are still recovering, and to be sure, they have fixed a steady eye on Hurricane Dorian, which has made an unqualified disaster of the Bahamas.

At least seven people are dead, a number that’s sure to rise. Families, submerged by 30 inches of rain and a horrendous storm surge, clung to their roofs and awaited rescue. It’s “worse than anyone on Earth could have expected,” one resident told CNN.

“Nothing compares to what we went through the past two days,” said another survivor. “Almost 48 hours now with nonstop carnage.”

Dorian won’t pack the same punch in North Carolina. When it arrives later this week, the storm’s expected to register as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane. But its rainfall and storm surge could still be deadly. And, in preparation for the storm’s stampede up the U.S. coast this week, Gov. Roy Cooper issued mandatory evacuation orders Tuesday afternoon for North Carolina’s coastal barrier islands. 

These monster storms have been an occasional part of life on the east coast, something, we believed, out of our control, like fate, like the ocean’s tides. 

We wait to see if their fickle path spares us, and we talk time and again about preparation, about safety, about supplies and about resources.

But we spend precious few moments considering our role in this. We don’t talk nearly enough about the existential threat we face, about climate change and how our warming planet is poised to manufacture more of these titanic, table-clearing storms, these symptoms of an illness many of our leaders would rather not name.  

Most scientists, if not politicians, now acknowledge that we probably bear some responsibility for their escalating power and intensity, a product of a human-made global warming.

Emerging research predicts a massive spike in the frequency of “catastrophic,” Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin in the coming years. 

Indeed, it is not simply in our heads then that we face more storms like Dorian these days, mammoth systems that, from space, resemble God’s fingerprint, blotting out entire portions of the planet. 

These storms come for Republicans and Democrats, for blue states and red states, for capitalists and communists and socialists, for the poor and the wealthy alike. 

There’s more to the threat of climate change than storms, of course, particularly for North Carolina. There are the sweeping implications for agriculture – the beating heart of the North Carolina economy – as well as the threat of rising sea levels in coastal lands that we take for granted, the increased frequency of intense weather events, and the reduction of available drinking water. 

Some of us dismiss these dire predictions as the work of “tree-huggers,” and we scoff at the notion of sweeping action from our leadership. We taunt the architects of a “Green New Deal” and its supposedly unpalatable reforms, even as such ideas resonate with a younger crowd, a crowd more likely to have to live with the conditions we’ve wrought.  

Two years ago, it was Donald Trump and his enablers who allowed the United States to walk away from the Paris climate accords, but it is not Trump and his enablers who will be here for the worst of climate change. It is our children who will inherit someone else’s bad dream.

And it is North Carolina’s legislative leaders who have, for far too long, impeded green energy production in this state, the expansion of wind and solar projects, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Ignorance won’t be a defense. Ignorance was lost many, many scientific studies ago. Our leadership stands proud and arrogant on the deck of the Titanic. Our leadership makes politics of science. Our leadership endangers us all. 

“Save the planet,” we proclaim. But if we’re honest, it’s not likely we’ll kill the planet. Rather, what we do to the planet may kill us. 

This year, as Dorian approaches and we offer sympathies and volunteer our time to storm victims, we need to do more. Of course, the time and energy and contributions of volunteers will be needed for the storm’s victims. 

But, in 2019, with what we know now, storm preparation is about more than bread and water and generators. It’s about advocacy too.

It’s about demanding sustainable, green energy from our leaders. It’s about recognizing climate change as the science it is, because wishful thinking never made a wish come true.

And it’s about understanding that, while no one person is guilty for climate change, for the increasing prevalence of these mammoth storms, no one person is innocent either.