The Name of the Hurricane is Climate Change

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This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The first
horseman was named al-Qaeda in Manhattan, and it
came as a message on September 11, 2001: that our meddling in the Middle East had sown rage and funded madness. We had
meddled because of imperial ambition and because of oil, the black gold that
fueled most of our machines and our largest corporations and too many of our
politicians. The second horseman came not quite four years later. It was named
Katrina, and this one too delivered a warning.

message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when
the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure,
institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these
was the climate — the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice
and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had
into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in
January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.

The third horseman came in October of 2008: it was named Wall Street, and
when that horseman stumbled and collapsed, we were reminded that it had always
been a predator, and all that had changed was the scale — of deregulation, of
greed, of recklessness, of amorality about homes and lives being casually
trashed to profit the already wealthy. And the fourth horseman has arrived on

We called it Sandy, and it came to
tell us we should have listened harder when the first, second, and third
disasters showed up. This storm’s name shouldn’t be Sandy — though that means
we’ve run through the alphabet all the way up to S this hurricane season, way
past brutal Isaac in August — it should be Climate Change. If each catastrophe
came with a message, then this one’s was that global warming’s here, that the
old rules don’t apply, and that not doing anything about it for the past 30
years is going to prove far, far more expensive than doing something would have

That is, expensive for us, for human beings, for life on Earth, if not for
the carbon profiteers, the ones who are, in a way, tied to all four of these
apocalyptic visitors. A reasonable estimate I heard of the cost of this
disaster was $30 billion, just a tiny bit more than Chevron’s profits last year (though it might go as high as $50 billion). Except that it’s coming out of the empty
wallets of single mothers in Hoboken,
New Jersey, and the pensions of
the elderly, and the taxes of the rest of us. Disasters cost most of us
terribly, in our hearts, in our hopes for the future, and in our ability to
lead a decent life. They cost some corporations as well, while leading to
ever-greater profits for others.

Are Born Political

It was in no
small part for the benefit of the weapons-makers and oil producers that we
propped up dictators and built military bases and earned the resentment of the
Muslim world. It was for the benefit of oil and other carbon producers that we
did nothing about climate change, and they actively toiled to prevent any such

If you wanted,
you could even add a fifth horseman, a fifth disaster to our list, the blowout
of the BP well
in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010; cost-cutting on
equipment ended 11 lives and contaminated a region dense with wildlife and
fishing families and hundreds of thousands of others. It was as horrendous as
the other four, but it took fewer lives directly and it should have but didn’t
produce political change.

Each of the
other catastrophes has redirected American politics and policy in profound
ways. 9/11 brought us close to dictatorship, until Katrina corrected course by
discrediting the Bush administration and putting poverty and racism, if not
climate change, back on the agenda. Wall Street’s implosion was the 2008
October Surprise that made Americans leave Republican presidential candidate
John McCain’s no-change campaign in the dust — and that, three years later,
prompted the birth of Occupy Wall Street.

The Wall Street
collapse did a lot for Barack Obama, too, and just in time another October
surprise has made Romney look venal, clueless, and irrelevant. Disaster has been good to Obama
— Katrina’s reminder about race may have laid the groundwork for his
presidential bid, and the financial implosion in the middle of the presidential
campaign, as well as John McCain’s disastrous response to it, may have won him
the last election.

The storm that
broke the media narrative of an ascending Romney gave Obama the nonpartisan
moment of solidarity he always longed for — including the loving arms of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But it’s
not about the president; it’s about the other seven billion of us and the rest
of the Earth’s creatures, from plankton to pikas.

Hope in
the Storm

Sandy did what no activist could
have done adequately: put climate change back on the agenda, made the argument
for reasonably large government, and reminded us of the
colossal failures of the Bush administration seven years ago. (Michael “heckuva
job” Brown, FEMA’s astonishingly incompetent director under George W. Bush,
even popped up to underscore just how far we’ve come.)

Maybe Sandy will also remind us
that terrorism was among the least common, if most dramatic, of the dangers we
faced then and face now. Though rollercoasters in the surf and cities under
water have their own drama — and so does seawater rushing into the pit at Ground Zero.

Clearly, the
game has changed. New York City’s
billionaire mayor, when not endorsing police brutality against Wall Street’s
Occupiers, has been a huge supporter of work on climate change. He gave the
Sierra Club $50 million to fight coal last year and late last week in Sandy’s wake came out
with a tepid endorsement of Obama as the candidate who might do
something on the climate. Last week as well, his magazine, Bloomberg
ran a cover that could’ve run anytime in the past few
decades (but didn’t) with the headline: “It’s global warming, stupid.”

There are two
things you can hope for after Sandy.
The first is that every person stranded without power, running water, open
grocery stores, access to transportation, an intact home, and maybe income (if
work isn’t reachable or a job has been suspended) is able to return to normal
as soon as possible. Or more than that in some cases, because the storm has
also brought to light how many people were barely getting by before. (After
all, we also use the word “underwater” for people drowning in debt and houses
worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages.) The second is that the fires
and the water and the wind this time put climate change where it belongs, in
the center of our most pressing issues.

We Have
Power! How Disasters Unfold

A stranger sent
me a widely circulated photograph of a front gate in Hoboken with a power
strip and extension cord and a little note that reads, “We have power! Please
feel free to charge your phone.” We have power, and volunteers are putting it
to work in ways that count. In many disasters, government and big bureaucratic
relief organizations take time to get it together or they allocate aid in less
than ideal ways. The most crucial early work is often done by those on the ground, by the neighbors, by
civil society — and word, as last week ended, was that the government wasn’t
always doing it adequately.

Hurricane Sandy seems to be typical
in this regard. Occupy Wall Street and got together to create Occupy Sandy and
are already doing splendid relief work, including for those in the flooded
housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. My friend Marina Sitrin, a scholar and
Occupy organizer, wrote late last week:

“Amazing and
inspiring work by community and Occupy folks! Hot nutritious meals for many
hundreds. Supplies that people need, like diapers, baby wipes, flashlights
etc., all organized. Also saw the first (meaning first set up in NYC — only
tonight) scary FEMA site a few blocks away. Militarized and policed entrance,
to an area fenced in with 15-foot fences, where one gets a sort of
military/astronaut ration with explanations of how to use in English that I did
not understand. Plus Skittles?”

declared dead by the mainstream media six weeks ago, is shining in this mess. Kindness, solidarity, mutual aid of
this kind can ameliorate a catastrophe, but it can’t prevent one, and this
isn’t the kind of power it takes to pump out drowned subway stations or rebuild
railroad lines or get the lights back on. There is a role for government in
disaster, and for mobilizing all available forces in forestalling our march
toward a planet that could look like the New
Jersey shore all the time.

When Occupy
first began, all those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the
encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake. The occupiers looked
like disaster survivors — and in a sense they were, though the disaster they
had survived was called the economy and its impacts are usually remarkably
invisible. Sandy
is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere
is very expensive and will get more so.

increasingly turbulent, disaster-prone planet we’re on is our beautiful old
Earth with the temperature raised almost one degree celsius. It’s going to get
hotter than that, though we can still make a difference in how hot it gets.
Right now, locally, in the soaked places, we need people to aid the stranded,
the homeless, and the hungry. Globally we need to uncouple government from the
Big Energy corporations, and ensure that most of the carbon
energy left on the planet stays where it belongs: underground.

the Status Quo

Disasters often
unfold a little like revolutions. They create a tremendous rupture with the
past. Today has nothing much in common with yesterday — in how the system
works or doesn’t, in what people have in common, in how they see their
priorities and possibilities. The people in power are often most interested in
returning to yesterday, because the status quo was working for them — though
Mayor Bloomberg is to be commended for taking the storm as a wake-up call to do
more about climate change. For the rest of us, after such a disaster, sometimes
the status quo doesn’t look so good.

Disasters often
produce real political change, not always for the better (and not always for
the worse). I called four of the last five big calamities in this country the
four horsemen of the apocalypse because directly or otherwise they caused so
much suffering, because they brought us closer to the brink, and because they
changed our national direction. Disaster has now become our national policy: we
invite it in and it directs us, for better and worse.

As the horsemen
trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish
natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no
difference anymore. But there’s another point: that we can prevent the worst of
the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions
reductions to economic justice, and that it’s all tied up together.

I wish Sandy hadn’t happened.
But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope
that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we
change to meet the challenges.

Copyright 2012
Rebecca Solnit

As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about’s
and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons

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