The Great Climate Change Disconnect


Superstorm Sandy hit last week and sparked renewed discussion, energy and interest in climate change. What is it about storms that hit our cities that so mesmerises us? With so many more violent and destructive weather events over the last few years, what is it about this one that makes us stop and think?

"We are awed and humbled by nature’s destructive power" was the way Obama chose to frame superstorm Sandy in the lead up to today’s election.

Unfortunately, when we’re awed by something we tend to be a bit open-mouthed and flat-footed. Watching footage of the storm damage, I felt my mouth drop open as I recognised the street where I stayed in New York just last Christmas; the cars stacked on top of one another like they’d just crashed at the end of a Hot Wheels session; the water rising up to the windows; the trashcans and flowerpots drifting by along a ruined Sesame Street.

Haiti, utterly devastated by the storm, has barely registered — instead we watch scenes of the American East coast that seem already familiar. Captured footage of Sandy seems to reference films; we’ve seen these images before in great and terrible movies like 2012, A Perfect Storm and The Poseidon Adventure.

One of the reasons these images are so powerful and have sparked more climate change discussion than much bigger storms, is not simply because they show the destruction of places we know well and see as permanent features of our Western world. It’s also because the image of buildings being overwhelmed by water is psychologically powerful.

Think of the dreams you have where your house is partly underwater, where you find a huge body of water where there was once land, where water invades your car or sweeps you up off the ground.

While dreams have particular and personal meanings, these dreams are often a response to a life where the concrete and the material have become too important. They point to the part of life we often choose to ignore: the environmental and the spiritual. They remind us that our lives are fragile and that what we build can always be torn down. They remind us of what we don’t want to know is true. They ask us to connect our actions to their deeper consequences.

It’s a difficult connection to make, isn’t it? That when I drive my car to work I’m contributing to the conditions that give rise to a storm that wipes out an iconic coastline, kills people and leaves millions without power. Seemingly tiny personal actions whose effect we cannot individually measure, lead at least in part to chaotic natural disaster. We don’t want to believe this. We don’t want to know that we are responsible together for many of the tiny drops of water that became a rising tide.

So instead we wait for proof. We always want incontrovertible proof for things we already know but don’t want to believe. Like people who hire private detectives to follow their loved ones they suspect of infidelity, we already know something is wrong, but we don’t really believe that we know what we know. Causality is extremely hard to establish. We kept smoking while we waited over 40 years for a solid scientific basis for its relationship to lung cancer, despite a mountain of evidence. And we fight the climate science in the same way. Because we don’t want to stop living as we do. There are so many things we still want to light up.

In the days following the storm, there have been super-sized queues for petrol. If you watch the footage of the crazy bottlenecks, you’ll hear people telling police they really need to get to work, or that somehow the lines could have been more orderly. Surely this is simply mismanagement? Unable to really come to terms with the fact that their cities have been overwhelmed by water, people are fighting to hold onto their sense that life should go on as normal and that if things had been done properly, their lives would not have been disrupted.

The images we see of Sandy break down some of this complacency. They threaten our feelings of control and our sense of individual blamelessness. They flood the foundations of our simple disconnected materialism. As climate scientists tell us that these storms represent a new normal, we struggle to assimilate the images of Sandy into our sense of how things have been and always should be.

With this sense of control and certainty undermined, as it has been for many people in the wake of Sandy, we have two main choices about how to respond. We can take in the new information, threatening as it is, and allow it to change us in unpredictable ways. Or we can hang on tightly to our vision of the world as we know it.

We can dismiss reality in preference for fantasy. We all do this regularly. We resist changing until the evidence that our old beliefs are outdated becomes so overwhelming we can no longer fight against it. This is in essence the process we all go through when we resist transformative change, because it requires sacrifice and at least some loss of comfort — and we are comfort loving creatures.

The images of Hurricane Sandy ask us to change both our internal and external maps in a way that storms that bypass our cities do not. That’s part of why we’ve found it so hard to look away. They ask us to take responsibility for where and how we live in a way we don’t want to face.

But as the anxiety of this new reality builds and the pressure to change in the face of new evidence increases, so do our defences. The challenge posed by a dream of flooding is to let the water into our consciousness. If we can’t let the images of Sandy change our climate consciousness, then maybe we can’t handle the truth.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.  

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