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A gaping wound in democracy

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 5 November 2012

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, evidence of a new victim is emerging: American democracy and freedom of speech.

For three days as the superstorm smashed down on the eastern USA, claiming lives, wreaking havoc and even disrupting the presidential election schedule, America's media, its politicians and its public figures blithely ignored the message the planet is sending them, with increasing frequency and fury.

America has just passed through one of its two most devastating droughts in 100 years. It has sustained major flooding. In 2011 it experienced 14 separate billion-dollar storm damage events. It suffered the most tornadoes on record. This year extreme weather records were broken across the continent. Yet the silence in the public, mainstream media and political discourse about the reasons is deafening.


Historian Arnold Toynbee observed "Civilisations die by suicide, not by murder" and the United States certainly appears a candidate for his dictum. A nation founded on freedom of speech, vigorous public debate and the contest of ideas has apparently become largely deaf, dumb and paralysed in the face of a major emerging existential threat.

American climate science is quite clear: Superstorm Sandy was not a freak occurrence, a "once in a generation event" as the US media has misleadingly labelled it. It is the forerunner of many such events, and worse, that will soak up increasing amounts of economic and physical resources simply in repair and attempts to limit the damage. Yet this issue remains in the background of American public discourse, almost as if an entire nation had agreed to avoid the facts.

Some lonely voices such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo and NY mayor Michael Bloomberg have publicly linked Sandy to "climate change". And only Bloomberg Businessweek had the guts to print the headline "It's global warming, stupid". But these fell short of acknowledging the fact that it is human activity, and US activity in particular, that is chiefly responsible for adding the extra energy to the atmosphere. Back in the mainstream, Fox News's weather anchor was confidently telling a vastly larger audience "Sandy has nothing to do with global warming".

Meanwhile the drills continue to hammer into America's tar sands, oil shale and gas deposits, petroleum explorers probe the melting Arctic, and coal miners slice the tops off mountains as the mad stampede to stoke up planetary warming continues, unrestrained and unabated.

Most people know that if you turn up the heat under a pot of water on the stove, two things happen. The water boils more furiously and more steam rises. That's how Sandy and other extreme events work. Add more heat energy to the atmosphere, and it takes up more moisture – later released as storms and downpours – and becomes more turbulent. It is not hard for anyone to grasp the principles.

Public attention has been diverted from this basic fact by a sterile debate about whether single events such as Sandy were 'caused by climate change': in reality, as several climate scientists have pointed out, all extreme events are exacerbated by the increased amount of energy in the atmosphere, which humans have put there.


The US dilemma is that contemporary American society is built on plastic, cars, electricity, drugs, concrete, cosmetics, paint, fertilizer, pesticides, junk food, synthetic clothing and countless other products of fossil fuels. To many the thought of either giving up these things or finding new ways to make them seems inconceivable – rather a shame in a society that has always taken pride in rising to a challenge.

There is another darker force at work, however, best articulated by one of America's favourite bogeymen: "Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it". It's advice that has been studiously followed by parts of the US energy sector and their cohorts in the media and politics to deny or explain away the evidence of man-made global warming and to whip up public hysteria against it, especially among the ignorant, the deeply conservative and the alienated.

It is the confluence of these powerful influences over American public thought – self interest, ignorance and fear – that has brought on the present paralysis of will in the world's greatest democracy. To ask whether humans (including Americans) are responsible for global warming is, in this twisted interpretation, equated with the questioning of America's values on all things. Even politicians like Obama tiptoe around the issue, because they are inhibited from speaking their mind by the superstorm of fury, execration and fake indignation which doing so would unleash.

Climate change, not terrorism, or the Global Financial Crisis is the true test of the resilience, durability and quality of American democracy in this generation and whether it can adapt to the changed conditions of the 21st century or is fated, as Toynbee has it, to die by its own hand, unable to rationally face, understand and deal with the great challenges which confront it.

Perhaps in the end, the answer lies with a quote attributed to a man most Americans admire, Winston Churchill (himself partly American): "The Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

For the sake of all humanity, generations to come, and for America and its allies, let us hope it does not take too long – or too many more savage atmospheric reminders.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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