This week’s flooding in Iowa has created an emergency for its residents, businesses, and the cities affected. With certain notable exceptions (hurricane Katerina) we seem to know what to do after an emergency. We take the actions we must to get back to normal.
We have also seen similar reactions in Juneau, Alaska when an avalanche ripped out their normal hydro-power transmission lines and residents reduced consumption by more than 30%, nearly overnight. People do what they have to do.
One of the outcomes of the flooding this week is that five of six wells used to supply drinking water to the area were compromised. This has created a shortage. And so, the residents will take the actions they need to. This quote is from the New York Times:
The Linn County Emergency Management Agency warned that the water shortage could last weeks. “It’s not conserve water because the world is going to be better because of it,” Dustin Hinrichs, a spokesman for the agency, told The Gazette. “It’s conserve water because we might not have any tomorrow.”
And it is in this statement that I see both reason for hope, and reason to be discouraged.
A Request for charity, not a Call to Action
Mr. Hinrichs, saying “because the world is going to be better” has identified the problem with what people are hearing about climate change and energy issues. We are hearing about abstract and less immediate issues.
Attempts at making direct links between global warming and hurricanes, cyclones, floods, droughts and so on are dismissed, since the relationship cannot be proved in the specific. Other implications, like melting glaciers, are only immediate in the global sense of time. We are hearing that problems are not immediately life threatening. Some care, others don’t.
So unlike the lack if drinking water in Iowa today, global warming and energy are not immediate. We can say “we should start doing something about this” … if we care.
The problem is we’re thinking about global warming as some sort of charity.
Giving to charity is optional. It’s something you do when you can, but not when you have more pressing needs. Charity benefits others, not yourself.
We watched the first episode of the new TV show, Greensburg, this week. It follows a town devastated by a tornado (and wow, it was wiped clean) as they rebuild. Whether this largest of tornadoes that struck in May, 2007 was due to global warming or not, it seems to have been a wake-up call to the town.
We were woken up when Katerina, one of the largest hurricanes recorded, destroyed a major city. But the focus was on how to rebuild. We were woken up on 9/11, but the focus was on how to stop terrorism against the US.
Forest fires in California hills have seemingly not affected many peoples’ desires to live there. Water shortages in Georgia and the West are creating tension and controversy, and are indeed immediate to some people. High fuel prices are affecting most Americans, but our first reaction is to blame the oil companies, or look for more oil.
What Constitutes an Emergency?
When an emergency happens, we respond — quickly!
While many, many people, businesses, organizations, and governments are beginning to respond to global warming and energy issues, it’s a plodding, halting, disconnected kind of thing.
Al Gore, and many others warning of global warming are seen as alarmists — Chicken Littles who run around saying “the sky is falling” when it seems evident that the sky is not falling.
We are addicted to oil, and many other forms of consumption that we have come to think are necessities. And so it’s very inconvenient indeed to think that there’s a real emergency to respond to.
And so, until you’re in Greensburg, New Orleans, Juneau, or until you’re stuck without money trying to get to work, or heat your house, it’s not really your problem. It’s someone else’s.
Shall we wait for our emergency?
Some disasters are unstoppable. Most, at some level are stoppable, given advanced warning. But only if we heed the warning.
We have certainty that there is a problem; it is upon us. Where and how it strikes can be guessed in the abstract, but is unknown, specifically.
We have many to address our energy and climate woes.
We have the means to do it.
Do we have the will to act now?
Can we communicate the degree to which these problems will likely result in some sort of emergency for large numbers of Americans, and the rest of the world, yet do so without sounding like Chicken Little?
Must it take an emergency?