Storm of the century
Seattle’s record-breaking weather: A taste of things to come?
It wasn’t Katrina, not even close, but Seattle’s storm of the century was no picnic. It gave me one more taste of a future where the weather can suddenly turn – and destroy the habitability of our world. The storm hit Seattle mid-December with pounding rain and 70-mile-an-hour winds, reaching 110 miles per hour, 35 miles to the east, on the slopes of the Cascade Mountains. The ground was already soggy from the wettest November in Seattle history and, as the wind and rain uprooted trees, many fell on houses and cars, blocked roads, and took down local power lines, cutting off heat and light to more than a million residents in the city and surrounding areas. Thirteen people died. Sanitation systems overflowed, dumping tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Puget Sound. A week later, nearly a hundred thousand people were still living in the cold and the dark. Although my own lights stayed on, the next street was dark, and I could drive 10 minutes and pass block after block of blackened houses. Those affected joked at first about sleeping with mittens and down parkas, then grew increasingly testy as gas stations couldn’t pump gas, supermarkets were closed, and what seemed at first a brief interruption turned into days without the basics of modern human existence. A month later, the last residences were finally getting back their phone services. And, as I write this, 29,000 people have just lost power again from yet another Seattle storm.
The December storm dominated our local news and made national headlines, preceding the blizzard that stranded 5,000 travelers at the Denver International Airport. Both storms fit the predictive model of extreme weather events caused by global climate change, and ours fit the specific predictions for our region. But other than a single Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist, I found no media commentator who raised the link to global climate change. For two weeks, our newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations talked about little else except the storm. Reporters interviewed victims, judged the performance of local utilities, suggested ways we could have been better prepared. But by offering no larger context, they lost the chance to get people involved in shaping precisely the kinds of individual and common actions that might help prevent similar storms in the future. We’d encountered a profound, teachable moment, then that moment was quickly lost.
This failure to draw broader conclusions was no exception. Last May, New England made national news with the worst storms and floods since a 1938 hurricane. In June, a storm flooded the Mid-Atlantic region. In July, in St. Louis, thunderstorms knocked out power to three quarters of a million people (the city’s largest power loss ever), and then freezing rain returned in early December, two weeks before the Seattle storm, to leave another half million people without power for up to a week. Missouri and Illinois had record numbers of tornadoes, and western states suffered record levels of forest fires. Meanwhile, New York City saw balmy winter temperatures in the 60s.
Although you can’t absolutely prove a specific exceptional event was triggered by global warming, they all fit the larger predicted pattern. Yet mainstream commentators drew few broader links. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Commentators certainly talked about these events but, by failing to place them in any broader context, they made it that much less likely that ordinary citizens will do anything to change a future that risks looking seriously ugly.
America’s major media haven’t been entirely silent on global warming. You could even say 2006 brought a sea change in their public acknowledgment of its gravity. If you really read the superb Time or Parade magazine cover stories, or even the coverage in Business Week and Fortune, you couldn’t fail to be concerned. Newspapers and TV networks have featured pictures of melting glaciers, drought-parched Australian farms, crumbling Arctic ice shelves, the October-November floods that affected almost two million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, and the submersion of the Indian island of Lohachara, which once had 10,000 inhabitants, by a combination of erosion and rising sea levels. Even FOX News occasionally acknowledged that the weather seemed different, though the network continued to dismiss any notion that this constituted a crisis as “media hype.”
Except in the case of Katrina, however, major media outlets treated most of America’s extreme weather events as if these incidents were wholly separate from the broader global shifts. They did nothing to help people connect any particular event with any other, or to understand the broader patterns. This fragmentation has extended to our political leaders, even many who care about the issue. The 2005 pledge of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to have the city meet or exceed the Kyoto standards has inspired the mayors of 355 other major American cities to begin to follow suit. But so far, even Nickels hasn’t publicly linked Seattle’s storm with its likely root causes.
The storm reminded me of the complex vulnerability of the systems that support us – how our food, water, electricity, and heat all depend on intricate networks of electric, oil, gas, and water lines; on trucking and railroad schedules; on crops grown halfway across the country or around the world; on lifesaving medical technologies like dialysis machines. We’re not used to generating our own power or living without it. We expect the water faucets to work, the lights and heat to go on – and God forbid our DSL service should go down.
When the crisis hit in Seattle, we focused, understandably, on survival, not politics. If our power was out, we took care of our families, huddled by wood stoves or fireplaces, and ate food from our refrigerators before it went bad. We spent as long as we could at cafés or stores where the power was still working and, as the outages continued, we stayed over with friends or neighbors who had power. But mostly, we tried to get through the situation as best we could and waited for the utility crews to fix things. When the power came back on, normal life resumed and any urgency that might have impelled us to act slipped away.
In a culture where the most important questions too often get buried, even living in the path of a disaster doesn’t automatically lead us to connect our immediate crisis with the larger choices that may have helped produce it. We can feel the force of the wind and the rain. When a 50-year- old tree topples or a storm floods our basement, it’s tangible. But the shifts increasing the likelihood and frequency of such disasters are far harder for us to comprehend. We rely on the descriptions of scientists and policymakers, citizen activists, and paid Exxon shills, and through the reflections of this issue in the media (which has mostly been too compromised or too cautious to lead an honest discussion about oil-free alternatives or the effect our lifestyle choices could have). For all its accuracy in depicting the roots of the crisis, even the phrase “global warming” (rather than “climate change”) feels odd when describing freak blizzards and off-the-charts rainstorms and hailstorms.
It would be easier if these storms were like earthquakes – beyond our influence or control. Then we could simply hope they don’t happen to us and do our best to minimize their potential impact, as we do when retrofitting houses and commercial buildings for earthquake safety. Global warming brings a more demanding challenge, because its most destructive potential can be prevented. Extreme weather events once could be called Acts of God. Our actions have changed this, feeding the ferocity and frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, floods and every imaginable kind of storm. The longer we deny this, the higher the cost.
It’s hard for any of us to step back and confront the depth of the challenge this poses. It’s easier to close our eyes to the issue, as if we’re children banishing monsters from beneath our bed. It’s easier to hope someone else will solve it. Many of us also find it hard to act because we doubt we’ll have an impact. The issue is so vast, so global, that anything we might do seems insignificant in comparison, just spitting in the ocean. The picture gets more daunting still as developments like melting Arctic permafrost release still more greenhouse gases into the air. It’s easy to just go about our familiar routines. Add in a war-obsessed president and the media-drumbeat of Exxon-funded global warming deniers, and it’s no wonder so many of us wait and do nothing.
But we have to view our actions as being magnified, for good and ill, by the choices of other individuals in our communities, our nation, and the planet. Global warming can’t be solved through individual actions alone, but individual choices will inevitably play a part, not the least by pioneering critical alternatives.
One homeowner’s response
In the wake of Seattle’s storm, I took some modest individual actions to lighten my impact on the planet. I scheduled an energy audit to see where my wife and I could further insulate our house, contacted a company that does solar hot water installations (even in Seattle, they pay back in seven or eight years with the new tax credits), and am checking out another firm that leases solar electricity panels for the cost of what you’d pay your local utility. With the help of an energy efficiency rebate program, I replaced our 20-year-old washing machine with a high-efficiency Frigidaire built at a unionized United Auto Workers plant in Webster City, Iowa. I’ve also resolved to take the bus and bike more, will likely replace our 15-year-old 21-mpg Nissan Stanza with a more efficient car, and will probably start buying carbon offsets for my plane flights.
made me feel pretty virtuous, until I remembered that these are all
individual solutions, made possible by our having some discretionary
savings. To make them available for everyone requires common actions,
like alternative energy subsidies and tax credits, the mass purchasing
by government entities of energy efficient technologies, and the
creation of tax and regulatory codes that reward efficiency over waste.
It will also take a sustained effort to ensure that key alternatives
work financially and are accessible to the majority of Americans who
are already just barely getting by
Our local utilities have been subsidizing energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which helps. In 2005, the Washington State legislature passed a bill that will pay ratepayers for every kilowatt they generate with renewable technologies using in-state manufactured photovoltaic (PV) panels. PV panels could make solar electricity affordable even here in cloudy Seattle, with our low electric rate from our massive hydro-electric infrastructure. The bill to support these local initiatives passed our state legislature overwhelmingly, precisely because it combined investment in environmental sustainability with the promotion of local jobs.
Public concern about global warming has been increasing. In a June 2005 poll, shortly before Katrina hit us with a disaster of Biblical magnitude, 59 percent of Americans said they believed global warming threatens future generations. Now, the response is over 85 percent. Support is even coming from unexpected quarters, as when National Association of Evangelicals Vice President Ted Cizak enlisted 86 other prominent evangelical leaders (including the presidents of 39 Christian colleges and Rick Warren, bestselling author of The Purpose-Driven® Life), to sign a New York Times ad stating: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.”
“I don’t think God is going to ask us how He created the Earth,” Cizak said in an earlier interview, “but He will ask us what we did with what He created.”
Another hopeful development is the 58 percent increase last year in global solar investment and an equivalent growth in wind power. These positive steps are due not only to the disasters we’ve encountered, but also to the persistence of scientists and citizen activists in speaking out, and the mainstream impact of Al Gore’s blockbuster film An Inconvenient Truth. But we still need to move from a general sentiment to action. Suppose everyone who watched Seattle lose power or New England get flooded, demanded that our legislatures and corporations address this as a crisis of the highest order – as urgent as any war we’ve ever fought. Imagine if each of our major media outlets established a serious global warming beat, reporting consistently on the toll of America’s addiction to carbon-based energy and on all those new initiatives that restore a sense that alternatives exist and that we can all play a role in promoting them. What if we really did have discussions in every community and every institution of daily life about how to build the necessary political will to place this crisis at the top of our national priorities?
The lights are back on in Seattle. Normal life has resumed. But the storm should have been a warning to us all that we need to do more than just stock flashlights, water, and extra canned food. In its immediate wake, many had no choice except to focus on survival. Now the more difficult questions emerge, about how to prevent future catastrophes. The Seattle storm and comparable near-disasters in cities throughout America should serve as wake-up calls. But their ultimate impact will depend on what we’re willing to learn from them.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named #3 on the Top Ten list of political books of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org. To receive Loeb’s monthly articles, e-mail sympa(at)lists.onenw.org with the subject line “subscribe paulloeb-articles.”