Hurricane Matthew, a Deadly Reminder of Climate Chaos to Come

A Sandy survivor reflects on our planet's future

Liam Flynn-Jambeck Oct 6, 2016

My heart breaks as Category 4 Hurricane Matthew slams Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and now the Bahamas. When Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, it was a very hard time for my family. The neighborhood where I grew up on the Rockaways near Jacob Riis Park was destroyed, every single house was instantly inhabitable. As I write this, I think of the possible horrific events happening simultaneously in Matthew’s path.

To fully comprehend the tragedy is impossible. But what is necessary is that we connect the dots like Matthew, Sandy, Super Typhoon Meranti that just hit Taiwan and China with sustained winds of 190 mph, the several Super Typhoons that have killed thousands in the Philippines, the recent flooding in Louisiana, the five-year-long drought in California and on and on and on. The sad reality is that for the first time in four million years, due largely to humans burning fossil fuels, our atmosphere has a concentration of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. The last time this was the case, sea levels were 17 feet higher. Shit is realer than real right now and our leaders are drunk off campaign contributions from a few extremely wealthy people whose greed has put our future on course to pass climatic tipping points that once passed, leaves little hope for an inhabitable planet. We have arrived at our last chance.

Climate change isn’t about charts, ice core samples and weather models. It’s about human suffering. I get chills thinking about my parents’ experience during Hurricane Sandy, retreating from chest deep flood waters as fires burned all around them; since the floods prevented the fire trucks from driving in, patches of 30, 40 and 100 houses burned down. Hearing the experiences of neighbors still brings tears to my eyes. A mother was cut by storm debris and bled to death with her children watching. Another mother got trapped in the basement when the flood water gushed in and she drowned. The rest of the family had to wait upstairs for hours knowing their mother’s body was floating around downstairs. This horror unfolded in New York City, a highly developed place with robust resources and a response infrastructure in place (big up to Occupy Sandy, not FEMA). Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 earthquake that killed 250,000 people and left and left an unimaginable destruction from the 2010 earthquake. Now its vulnerable infrastructure is being battered by this monster storm. 

The victims of this storm will join the many from the frontline communities who have paid the ultimate sacrifice before them. Yet again, it is poor people, it is black and brown people who die as a result from "developed" countries’ race to the finish line with fossil fuel subsidies, campaign contributions, corporate lobbying and compliant media. The Climate Justice Movement has made huge strides lately, but we all have to do more. We cannot succumb to cognitive dissonance, sit back and say, "They signed the Paris Treaty, problem solved." False solutions are more dangerous than no solution.

There is a long list of climatic crises.

The oceans are acidifying faster than in last 300 million years. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. More CO2 equals more acidic oceans which equals coral reefs calcifying which equals loss of habitat for marine life, which equals no fish to eat. The oceans are also filled with tiny bits of plastic that have been wreaking havoc for all sorts of marine life. There may be more plastic than life in the oceans in just 30 years. The entire Pacific Ocean now has radiation from Fukushima. The Great Coral Reef is disintegrating, surface temperatures are skyrocketing. The oceans are the lungs of the Earth, producing more than half of the world’s oxygen. We need them.

Glaciers are melting, of course, but so is Arctic permafrost — releasing methane that has built up for a long, long time. Methane is way more potent than CO2. There is enough methane trapped under the permafrost to have the same effect of all the CO2 that is in the atmosphere already. All five of the mass extinctions in the Earth's ancient past were preceded by increased methane levels. With a lot of help from industrial agriculture and fracking, methane has been sharply increasing. Nothing to take lightly.

The fossil fuel cartels now control enough oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground to destroy five planet Earths. They bought off the politicians and stultify the conversation in the media. There are growing movements like Keep It in the Ground and Climate Divestment campaigns that are fighting the good fight. It really appears that the powers that be see themselves as exempt from the dangers of a whacked out climate, because their silence on the issue is deafening. In 2012, there was not a single question about the climate crisis in all the presidential and vice presidential debates. 2016 started off the same way. This is no accident. A few people stand to make tons of money and will stop at nothing to get it. We have to fight back in dignified defense like the indigenous nations that have joined together to defend their land and our future from the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Climate change means disruptions in food supplies, more and bigger wildfires, prolonged droughts, sea level rise as glaciers melt, loss of drinking water supply, increasing civil unrest in times of resource wars. There is no talk about the drought that crippled Syria leading to the bloody civil war we see today. Imagine what will happen if the sea rises three feet, forcing 200 million people from their homes by 2100, as NASA forecasts.

Imagine you are up in the mountains enjoying a wonderful day. You see a man who is so drunk he can barely stand up. He stumbles his way to his car with his three children. As he takes out his keys and gets in the driver seat. What would you do? Would you intervene or say, "Oh my, someone should stop him from driving?"

Our leaders are driving us over the climatic cliff. We are accelerating towards tipping points that once crossed there is no return, no chance to leave a recognizable planet to children born already. We have arrived at our last chance. It will be too late for the next generation to act to protect the world they will inherit. It’s up to us, right now, to defend our Mother Earth. 

As we keep the latest victims of climate change in mind and hope that Hurricane Matthew dissipates, I am saddened to think the destruction we experienced in New York from Sandy is happening right now in other parts of the world. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, to feel powerless, to be unsure about how to do your part. But there are billions of people whose lifestyles are not what caused this crisis, whose lives depend on us stepping up. Now is not the time to be paralyzed by guilt, but rather to realize that the solutions to this problem exist and are ready to be implemented. While many people in Haiti are faced with the daunting task of staying alive for the next few hours or the next few days or the next few weeks, let’s reaffirm that we will not sit idly by while greedy businessmen put the world on the brink of ecological collapse. We know another world is possible, but it’s up to us to create it.

After the Storm: Special Post-Sandy Issue
Putting It All On The (Pipe) Line
Don't Frack With Us: A Canadian Community Resists Runaway Gas Drilling
May Day For The Planet: Climate Change Resistance Comes To Bushwick
People's Climate March Special Issue
Beach Town vs. Big Energy
New York Pipeline Battles Multiply
The Answer Is Twisting in the Wind
Water Is Life: Photographic Dispatches From Sacred Stone Camp In North Dakota


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