Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and climate change: from complacency to panic

According to James Schlesinger, human beings have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic. This is a fitting description of our attitude towards climate change. So far, we have been in "complacency mode", ignoring the problem. Major disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, may push us from complacency to panic. In this case, we may enter a condition of full "survival mode" and forget about the ultimate causes of what is happening. (Image from Bloomberg)

Hurricane Sandy struck New York just a few months after the dramatic melting of the Arctic Sea ice of this summer. The melting hardly made a ripple in the news, but it didn't pass unnoticed. It generated a strong sense of urgency that appeared as a more aggressive stance when Sandy struck. Whereas in other occasions scientists had been very cautious in linking specific events to climate change, this time it was different. That, in turn, affected the media and the front cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, with the sentence "It is global warming, stupid," represents a real turning point in this attitude.

So, today we are seeing an attempt to build up a communication strategy that could bring climate change to the top of our perceived priorities. In this sense, Sandy may be considered as the tool that could bring us there. But is it going to work? On this point, Andy Revkin published a note with the  title "Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement On Climate Change."

Revkin cites at length a text by George Marshall, an expert in climate communication. The gist of Marshall's position is that disasters tend to generate an immediate reaction where people tend to develop attitudes such as social cohesion, community values, and reciprocal help. In other words, people go into "survival mode," and they have no time to dedicate to understanding the ultimate reasons of what is happening to them. Indeed, there is no evidence that people struck by climate related disasters such as droughts, heat waves, floods, and the like have made the connection between these events and climate change.

That basically confirms what James Schlesinger said about the "two modes of operation" of human beings: complacency and panic. If we are in "complacency mode," we don't care about preventing possible disasters. If we are in "panic mode", we have no time to dedicate to preventing disasters, either.

If this is the way things stand, we have a big problem: if climate disasters are rare, people will remain in complacency mode and will not connect the dots. On the other hand, if climate disasters become very frequent, people will go in panic mode and will have no time to connect dots.

So, Hurricane Sandy is unlikely to be the magic tool that brings climate change to the top of the world's priorities. Nevertheless, it offers us a window of opportunity, at least if we will not be stricken by a sequence of disasters so rapid that there won't be time to think about what's happening. Right now, when the emergency phase is over, there is time to stop and think about the reasons of the disaster. If we do that, we might have a chance to find a precarious equilibrium in between complacency and panic: we can put climate change back at the top of the world's priorities.

It is just that: a window of opportunity. It is up to us to seize it.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)