"There is no legitimate debate that climate change is happening. The only debate is around the nuances of the timeframe and how bad it will be." -Margaret Haberman
Last October I attended several provacative panels on climate science at Climate Week, an annual New York City based conference. I was particularly puzzled by one panel organized by the soon-to-be "Museum of Climate Change" entitled "Fear and Hope in the Climate Conversation." Although the speakers were all highly qualified, no one seemed to want to talk about fear, and no one did. This forced the conversation toward hope, taking it in several directions. One direction focused on personal reflections about optimism (which seemed to be based more on the individual character traits of the panelists - they indeed were a personally optomistic group), and on reviews of the most hopeful trends for managing climate change occurring around the world. Had the panel been called "What are We Doing Well?" I might have left more satisfied. Yes, smart and successful people are naturally confident. Yes, hundreds of cities and a number of states have pledged their intention to stick to the basic tenets of the Paris Climate Accords, which includes the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade. Yes, global growth in the clean energy sector is increasingly explosive, robust and unstoppable. Yet at the same time, scientists tell us that the Paris accords, plus the current level of growth of clean energy alternatives are not enough. It's a start, but not enough. Greater urgency is paramount. And how will we achieve that? And what should we fear if we don't manage? And what should we fear even if we do?
Coupling hope with the word fear made me expect and desire a deeper conversation. Frankly, I yearn for that time when we become realistic about our situation. Those of us who pay attention to peer reviewed climate science know there are plenty of reasons to be worried. Essentially, our best efforts to address climate change are failing to match the urgency of our situation, and with some notable and inspiring exceptions, most individuals and communities around the globe are woefully unprepared for what is coming. With CO2 levels at the highest levels for the past 800,000 years (humans have been around for fewer than 100,000 of those years), we are are only at the beginning of an acceleration of deadly heat waves, sea level rise, and destructive weather events that will grow increasingly intense and more frequent.
On July 9th, 2017, New York Magazine published a landmark article by David Wallace-Wells entitled "The Uninhabitable Earth, Famine, Economic Collapse, A Sun That Cooks Us: What Climate Change Could Wreak - Sooner Than You Think." The most-read story in the history of New York Magazine, this article inspired many follow up articles, some by writers who felt that the article's alarmist tone was more harmful than helpful, and in some cases, inaccurate. But then criticisms about the article were literally drowned out by an extraordinary series of extreme weather events. Along came Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria. And although it took a few months for scientists to be able to describe how climate change is the driver for these events, it is now possible to describe how warm waters in the Atlantic, prevailing trade winds and a wobbly jet stream resulting from a warming atmosphere all contibuted to create a season of "perfect storms" that are rightly viewed as canaries in a coal mine.
Like other Americans who weren't in the path of those storms (as opposed to those who were) I watched the story of the 2017 hurricane season mostly on TV. And although I don't believe our major networks peddle intentional "fake news", I do believe that first hand experience is the greatest way to learn about something. So, in November I decided to travel to Puerto Rico in January to study Spanish at a private school in downtown San Juan called Isla Language. I will be here for two weeks, improving my funky Spanish in the mornings and cycling around San Juan in the afternoons.
I have been here for four days now. San Juan is functional. Water and food are not difficult to obtain, and other than many destroyed street and traffic lights, people are busy in the normal sense of the word. The electric company is ubiquitous. Workers are deployed all over, broken poles are gradually being removed and wires hang everywhere. Ironically, remnants of old wires are as omnipresent as new ones. Clearly, getting wires up is more important to the utilty than cleaning up debris. That said, I imagine that the town will gradually become more organized as time passes. A resident (and fellow language student) pointed out several buildings in distinct disrepair and told me they were that way before the hurricane because of Puerto Rico's debt crises, which makes me often wonder if I am seeing something that fell into disrepair before the Hurricane.
Interestingly, only a few areas have maintained stable housing prices since 2008. The rest have lost value steadily over the past decade as the debt has spiraled. It appears to me that if anyone is looking for real estate in the Caribbean and they aren't worried about climate change impacts, this is a good place to buy. As a New Yorker, I'm very impressed by the prices, the gorgeous beaches (even post Hurricane) and the general joi de vie of the Puerto Rican people. Interestingly, the oldest part of San Juan weathered the Hurricane quite well - apparently the Spanish knew how to build buildings that would last.
One aspect of hope is our capacity to endure difficulties, regardless of how challenging they become. I can say with great respect that the Puerto Rican people possess this kind of hope. They are a remarkably cheerful and personally resourceful people, in spite of having experienced great hardship. It may be true that more people died in the aftermath of Maria than Katrina (see Hurricane Maria’s Aftermath in Puerto Rico ), but that fact is not evident in bustling San Juan.
"Anybody who works on the climate crisis has to deal with an internal struggle between hope and despair." -Al Gore