How much suffering must one region endure before we begin to see it, properly, as a new category of suffering? How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?
Our capacity for denial, for compartmentalization, and for normalization mean that the answer, unfortunately, may always be “more.” No matter how bad things get, it may be easier, emotionally speaking, to connect the dots to the experience of the past, as distant and different as that experience may be, rather than to the future, which terrifies us so much we choose simply to not believe it — and look away from the events of the present that point unmistakably in that direction.
By the end of the century, should unabated warming continue, a recent study suggested, parts of the planet could be pummeled by six climate-driven natural disasters at once. That kind of multiplying climate misery may seem still far away, but in fact we are seeing more and more instances of one disaster following directly in the footsteps of another, a whole new experience of sequential catastrophe, each making the impact of the next one worse.
Last month, in the Midwest, 500 tornadoes swept through the region in just 30 days — an average of 20 every day. The region is still underwater from historic flooding earlier in this spring, with some places deluged by seven feet of water and others issuing multiple disaster declarations in a single week. The Mississippi River has been flooding for three straight months; in Baton Rouge, the river rose past “flood stage” the first week of the year, according to Weather.com, “and has been above that threshold ever since.” In March, major flooding began in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska — and in Nebraska alone, damages are expected to reach $1.3 billion. The whole Midwest, the New York Times wrote, “has been drowning,” and farmers are so far behind in their planting — with only a fraction of corn and soybean crops actually in the ground — that the whole year’s harvest is in peril.
This is, to invoke the cliché, the “American heartland” — the landscape central to both country’s self-image and its politics. But its importance in the 2020 horse race belies its ominous transformation by the serial assaults of climate change. In fact, if you’ve heard about this flooding at all, it’s likely in the context of Trump’s agricultural tariffs; the much more important context, rarely mentioned, is climate change. The New York Times is among the publications most responsibly covering climate; one of its major stories on the flooding in the Midwest didn’t even use the word. (Other pieces in their “flood the zone” coverage were much more explicit about the connection.) Not that this is just a problem of media coverage, which has gotten much better, television excepted, over the last few years. It’s a problem of denial, compartmentalization, and normalization, which falls on all of us.
The phenomenon of cascading climate impacts may be even more striking in India — no surprise, since that nation is expected to be, by far, the hardest hit by climate change over the next century, with many of its biggest cities becoming so hot as to be unlivable, or close to it, as soon as 2050. In the meantime, they have this summer to deal with, and, as an extraordinary report in the Guardian last week shows, though it is only June, the climate punishments are already mounting, one on top of the other: heat wave, drought, extreme weather, all at once. Delhi reached its hottest temperature ever, over 118 degrees Fahrenheit, a week after the hottest place in the world was Churu, in Rajasthan, registering over 123 degrees. Outside of Mumbai, villages are suffering through a historic drought, which began in early December and has driven as much as 90 percent of the local population away in search of water. Villages that are home to 2,000 people now contain only 10 or 15 families.
“With 80% of districts in neighbouring Karnataka and 72% in Maharashtra hit by drought and crop failure, the 8 million farmers in these two states are struggling to survive,” Sam Relph writes in the Guardian. “In Marathwada, by many estimates the Indian region most affected by drought, increasingly frequent droughts have led to more than 4,700 farmer suicides in the last five years, including 947 last year. That crisis has deepened. In the city of Beed, clean drinking water has run out and households do not have enough water to wash clothes, clean dishes or flush the toilet. Hospitals are filling up with people suffering from dehydration — and gastrointestinal disease from drinking contaminated water.” The country has suffered from widespread drought like this four of the last five years. Then, last Thursday, Cyclone Vayu forced the evacuation of 300,000 Indians on the country’s east coast. In 24 hours over the weekend, 49 people died from the heat in just the province of Bihar. The country’s sixth largest city, Chennai, is “almost entirely out of water.” It is home to 5 million people.
A common question about collective inaction on climate change is: Could one catastrophic event shake us out of complacency? My answer tends to be: I don’t think it will be just one event, since a single disaster, no matter how dramatic, can still fade into the haze of normalization pretty quickly, not one in a long or even unending string. But I worry the experience of the recent past — unprecedented wildfires in Los Angeles quickly processed as familiar, if somewhat worse than normal; a historic cyclone hitting Mozambique just five weeks after another one killed a thousand and displaced millions, and yet was almost entirely ignored by the Western media — suggests that even clear and terrifying patterns can be normalized, too.
Last summer seemed like one unforgettable extreme event — or, rather, period. In just one week, dozens of places all over the world were hit with record heat waves, from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The previous month, the daytime temperature of one city in Oman reached above 121 degrees Fahrenheit, and did not drop below 108 all night, and in Quebec, 54 died from the heat. That same week, 100 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one in California that grew 4,000 acres in one day, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like, 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term, “fire tsunami,” along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. Later that summer, Typhoon Mangkhut forced the evacuation of 2.45 million from mainland China, the same week that Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas, turning the port city of Wilmington briefly into an island and flooding large parts of the state with hog manure and coal ash. Along the way, the winds of Florence produced dozens of tornadoes across the region. The previous month, in India, the state of Kerala was hit with its worst floods in almost a hundred years.
That was all just a year ago. How well do you remember it?
Last week, a study published in the journal Earth’s Future stated, definitively, that last year’s heat waves “could not have occurred without human-induced climate change” — in fact they don’t even show up in historical simulations. And although heat waves of this scale were “unprecedented prior to 2010,” the “four largest events in the observational record occurred within the last 12 years.” “The alarming part?” wrote the Washington Post. “There are signs record-setting heat waves are beginning anew this summer — signaling, perhaps, that these exceptional and widespread heat spells are now the norm.” The question is whether we normalize them ourselves.
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- How to Live in a Catastrophe
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