For the past few days, we in the Northeast have experienced our first real brush with fall weather. Just in time for the World Series—baseball’s “fall classic”—winds have picked up and temperatures have dropped into the 50s—and to near-freezing at night—bringing the region’s extended summer to a sudden and swift conclusion.
Under the circumstances, we should be very grateful, indeed.
It was this very weekend a year ago when a tropical storm called Sandy unleashed holy heck upon a great deal of the Jersey Shore and elsewhere, inflicting damage from which some areas are still recovering and others never will.
A year prior—again, the final weekend of October—the region was hammered by a massive and unexpected blizzard, which knocked out electricity and heat in innumerable homes for a wee bit longer than we would have liked. (In my apartment, things got so bad that we needed to call the fire department to clear out piles of carbon monoxide from the furnace.)
That two gargantuan, unprecedented meteorological calamities occurred exactly one year apart is a coincidence. But it provides us a thoroughly germane entry point into what has become a full-time job: Reminding ourselves that crazy weather is something we need to accept as inevitable in our world for the rest of our lives.
It would have been alarming enough for the northeastern seaboard to be struck by an uncommonly strong hurricane the same weekend two years in a row, or to be blanketed by an early snowfall in like manner.
But no, it was one type of ridiculous natural disaster followed by an entirely different type of ridiculous natural disaster.
In other words, the quandary for all mankind is not merely the increase in strength of active weather systems under the banner of “climate change,” but the increase in uncertainty and variability of the very nature of the systems themselves.
As a Bostonian, I have long appreciated comic Lewis Black’s quip that during one trip to Boston, “In four days, I experienced five seasons.”
Indeed, to live in a coastal environment such as the City of Beans has long meant having to prepare for a dramatic change in conditions on a moment’s notice—changes often not detected by even the most sophisticated computers.
To plan a trip to such a locale entails packing twice as many clothes as one will actually wear, as one cannot know in advance how many layers one might require on a given day.
One of the central facts of climate change, as its consequences become increasingly impossible to halt or reverse, is that the entire world is becoming Boston in this respect.
With each passing year, one will not be able to go anywhere on Earth with any confidence as to what might fall from the sky when one arrives. We will need to “prepare for the worst” without knowing what “the worst” actually is, because it could conceivably be anything.
The original error in the early PR campaigns to raise awareness of global warming was to call it “global warming.” First, as Bill Maher once observed, it makes the whole phenomenon sound rather appealing, particularly to those in climates that could use a little more warmth.
Second, and more crucially, “global warming” is the wrong term because it is too limited in scope, and does not accurately characterize what the crisis is and why it is a crisis.
In the north, 70 degrees in October sounds positively heavenly. But that followed by a monsoon, followed by a blizzard, followed by a hurricane? Not so much.
But that is what climate change hath wrought, and what makes it so frightening.
Feasibly, any city could secure itself against a particular type of extreme weather situation, given the funds and the organizational savvy. But can every city really secure itself against everything?
The continuing challenge, in spite of the above, is not to completely lose hope by throwing up our hands and assuming there are no further meaningful steps we can take to minimize the damage of future catastrophes. As the great cliché intones: Don’t make the best the enemy of the good.
Extreme weather is inevitable, as is the untold suffering it will unleash. The natural environment really is changing, and almost entirely for the worse.
But doing something about it is, as ever, still preferable to doing nothing at all, just as losing 90 percent of the Jersey Shore is preferable to losing the whole bloody thing.
We might wish for a more appealing choice than that, but then one must always face the world with which one is presented, particularly when one’s own lifestyle was partly responsible for bringing that world about.