A Tale of Two Sandys: Guns and Climate

By Paul Street.  First published on ZNet on February 6, 2013.In the final quarter of election year 2012, the northeastern United States was hit by two terrible tragedies linked to the word “Sandy.” One week before the election, tropical super-storm Hurricane Sandy killed 263 people across 7 countries, caused U.S. damage of at least $64 billion, and ravaged New York and New Jersey, providing memorable images of lower Manhattan under water. Five weeks after the election, a deranged young man with an assault weapon massacred 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The two terrible events both held global attention and the news cycle for many days. They both elicited shock, horror, sympathy, and offers of assistance around the world. And both were the latest in a series of incidents resulting from a deep underlying problem that deserved an urgent response from policy-makers and the political culture.

Its fury and staying power fueled by climate change, Hurricane Sandy was preceded by numerous recent episodes of extreme weather resulting from anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Examples include the remarkable wildfires, windstorms, tornadoes, heat waves, floods and droughts of 2011 and 2012, the hottest year on record – just a small portion of the wild climatology we’ve been seeing around the planet over many years, as predicted by climate science.

The Sandy Hook slaughter was preceded by horrific gun massacres at Columbine High School (1997), Virginia Tech University (April 2007), Northern Illinois University (February 2008), Tucson, Arizona (the Gabriel Giffords shooting in January 2011), and Aurora, Colorado (the Dark Knight movie shootings of July, 2012).

These mass shootings are only the most grisly and well-known examples of “homeland” death by gunfire in recent decades. Between mid-1968 and the present, more Americans have died inside the U.S. from gun violence than in all the nation’s wars, including the Civil War.[1]  

But this is where the parallels between Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook massacre end. Sandy Hook and what it says about gun violence in America have elicited a rapid, high-profile political response, reaching up to the presidential level and resulting in bold rhetoric and reform proposals from the White House and Congress. The media has channeled widespread public anger over the sorry state of the nation’s gun laws and the power of the nation’s proto-fascistic gun lobby (the National Rifle Association).

Sandy Hook has catalyzed a distinct political moment in which there may be a real chance for the passage of measures to increase public safety. President Barack Obama and his speechwriters have met the moment with eloquent rhetoric matching Obama’s campaign for Mount Rushmore. Whether meaningful protections will be enacted remains to be seen, but a real national debate on the nation’s gun laws and the problem of gun violence has emerged and moved to the front of U.S. politics.

 “Obama’s Biggest Failure”

Things are rather different with Hurricane Sandy and what it ought to tell us about AGW. The deadly “superstorm” has sparked no remotely comparable response on the part of the president or anyone else in power. Yes, Obama’s election night victory speech contained a brief reference to how Americans want their children to grow up in a country “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” The president’s Second Inaugural Address went further, saying that “We, the people…will respond to the threat of climate change” to protect “our children and future generations” from “the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

But so what? Big deal. The president made no statements of specific political or policy intent in relation to AGW, the leading issue of the millennium. And why should anyone be impressed by his green-sounding words in light of his deeds as president so far – deeds that stand in cold defiance of his lofty, green-sounding 2007 and 2008 campaign rhetoric? Here is a reasonable judgment on Obama’s terrible and hypocritical climate record to date in the latest issue of Rolling Stone

“Among all the tests President Obama faced in his first term, his biggest failure was climate change. After promising in 2008 that his presidency would be ‘the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,’ President Obama went silent on the most crucial issue of our time. He failed to talk openly with Americans about the risks of continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, failed to put political muscle behind legislation to cap carbon pollution, failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations, failed to use the power of his office to end the fake ‘debate’ about the reality of global warming and failed to prepare Americans – and the world – for life on a rapidly warming planet. It was as if the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced became a political inconvenience for the president once he became elected.” [2] 

If anything, Rolling Stone understates Obama’s first-term shabbiness on climate change. The president has not merely “failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations.” He has actively undermined those negotiations, leading some participants to observe that more progress would have occurred without U.S. participation. Along the way, the president has signed off on escalated offshore oil drilling and the ecologically disastrous practice of domestic hydraulic fracturing. During his second nationally televised presidential election debate with Mitt Romney, the president tussled with his Republican opponent over who would burn more of the nation’s fossil fuels in the name of national energy independence. The two contenders managed to make no references whatsoever to global warming or the environment in a debate that spent a remarkable 12 minutes on energy policy.

Obama set the stage for this horrific record early in first administration. When asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about the climate problems presented by fossil fuels (including Canadian tar sands oil, shale oil and gas, and goal) he responded with the standard and deadly western capitalist fantasy that “this can be solved with technology.”[3] 

“….Simply to Address Climate Change”

Will things change for the better in “Ba-frack” Obama’s s second term? The president’s vaguely inspiring words are one thing; concrete policy deeds are something else altogether. While that basic distinction ought to have driven home once and for all by his first term, which was a great tutorial on who really runs the country – the nation’s unelected dictatorship of corporate and financial money – beneath and beyond the fake-populist rhetoric of corporate-captive major party politicians. Still, many on the liberal “left” can’t seem to resist the instinct to fawn over “the bold progressive direction” supposedly signaled by the president’s Second Inaugural Address.

Even just at the rhetoric level, however, Obama’s first post-election press conference gave a depressing sign that his first term climate fiasco will continue. When asked about global warming, the president said that “the American people have been so focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message is somehow ‘we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change,’ I don’t think that anybody is going to go for that” (emphasis added).

This was a dreadful, ecologically appalling statement in two key ways. First, Obama used the phrase “simply to address climate change” as if global warming was a minor matter compared to “jobs and growth.” That was a tellingly dismissive way in which to refer to what has become gravest current threat to human existence and “the number 1 issue of our or any time” (philosopher John Sanbonmatsu). A protest placard common outside the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – a conference that Obama almost singlehandedly destroyed[4] – offers a fit rejoinder: “THERE’S NO ECONOMY ON A DEAD PLANET.”

Second, Obama’s comment bought into what Mother Jones editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery rightly call “the jobs vs. climate action straw man….a false and outdated dichotomy propagated by those with a vested interest in the status quo….”[5] Tackling climate change and other environmental ills in a meaningful way means putting many millions of people to work at all skill levels to design, implement, construct, conduct, and coordinate the essential environmental, climate-friendly  retro-fitting of economy and society: the ecological re-conversion of production, transportation, office space,  homes, agriculture, and public space. [6] 

“All You Climate Change People”

Obama’s horrible press conference remark takes me back to a similarly garbled and ecology-liquidating statement by CNN’s Candy Crowley after the second Obama-Romney debate, which Crowley moderated without calling on an audience member who was ready and desperate to ask the candidates about their positions on global warming. “Climate change,” Crowley said, “I had that question, all you climate change people; we just, you know again, we knew the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”   

By “you climate change people,” Crowley was presumably referring to the 160,000 Americans who signed petitions begging her and/or the first presidential debate moderator (the doddering ex-Marine Jim Lehrer) to ask the next U.S. president about the single most critical problem facing humanity.

When Google and the Commission on Presidential Debates asked voters to express their views on what questions should be asked, the most popular query was “what action will you take to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?”  

It was all to no avail. The 2012 presidential election was the first one since 1980 in which the entire series of presidential and vice-presidential debates did not include a single direct question about climate change or environmental protection more broadly. 

Superstorm Cassandra at Five to Midnight

Hurricane Sandy tried its best to bring the issue to bear on the election. She had some success. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the superstorm while endorsing Obama on the grounds that the president acknowledged the existence of AGW and Romney did not. Sandy may have encouraged some independents to select Obama on those grounds.

Still, the epic hurricane might have been better named “Cassandra” in terms of its lasting political impact. Obama’s “liberal” political capital will be invested first in gun control and then on immigration. Climate change remains a distant priority. The likelihood that it will emerge as a genuine concern is reduced by the continuing and recently deepened stagnation of American capitalism, something that promises to elevate “jobs,” “the economy” and “growth” over environmental concerns in the short-term election cycle time-frames that rule the attention spans of American politicians. It was futile, perhaps, to hope that Sandy – its remarkable fury driven by human-warmed ocean waters – would do much to break through the elite consensus of climate silence. The record-setting heat, droughts, and forest and grass fires of 2012 didn’t do the trick, so how was yet another example of Nature’s revenge going to succeed?

The irony behind the contrast between the attention and urgency granted gun violence after Sandy Hook and the continuing marginalization of AGW after Sandy is that the climate problem poses by far and away the gravest threat to humanity (and to thousands of other species as well). The danger is not greater simply than gun violence. It’s more extreme than the continuing dire threat posed by nuclear weapons. It’s not for nothing that the leading environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben calls human-generated climate change “the biggest thing that’s ever happened in history.”

American gun violence is a hideous and ongoing calamity. But it is thanks mainly to the dramatically escalating climate catastrophe (it appears that summer Arctic ice will disappear by 2020, not 2050 as previously estimated), not guns and not even nuclear proliferation, that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has recently pushed its annual positioning of humanity’s doomsday clock back to just 5 minutes short of midnight.[7] 

“It’s Invisible”

Why this ironic disparity in concern, coverage, and action between gun violence and AGW? Part of the problem was suggested recently by Yale University geographer Anthony Leiserowitz on the Public Broadcasting System’s Bill Moyers’ Journal. By Leiserowtiz’s reckoning, it would be difficult to design a threat that is a worse fit than climate change for human beings’ underlying physiological and psychological capacity to sense danger. As he explained to Moyers:

“…we are exquisitely attuned to what’s happening in our immediate environment and what we can see around us and what literally touches us physically. If you’re walking through the woods and you hear the crack of a stick behind you, your body immediately goes into a fear response, a fight or flight response. Climate change isn’t that kind of problem. It’s not an immediate, visceral threat.”

“…this very day we can look out the window and there’s CO2, carbon dioxide, pouring out of tailpipes, pouring out of buildings, pouring out of smokestacks. And yet we can’t see it; it’s invisible.”

“The fundamental causes of this global problem are invisible to us. And likewise the impacts are largely invisible to us as well unless you know where to look….And it’s a problem that is seemingly faceless. It’s not like terrorists…who are coming after us trying to kill us and challenge our fundamental values….” [8]

Leiserowitz could have left al Qaeda out of it and said that climate change isn’t experienced like a deeply disturbed young white American male entering an elementary school or a university lecture hall or a high school cafeteria or a shopping mall or a movie theater with an assault rife, shooting off rounds of ammunition that crack and thud into chairs, walls, and human bone and tissue. Sandy Hook and other recent gun massacres epitomize the “immediate, visceral” and “visible” sort of dangers to which our biochemistry is finely adjusted. 

“Very Happy” Exterminists and Their System

And yet numerous visible signs of AGW are seen and felt, often in very concrete and immediate ways: the windstorms and wildfires, the crushing heat, the more frequent and intense tornadoes and hurricanes, the floods and storm-surges and other not-so “natural” that can and do destroy homes, communities, and lives in rather direct ways. Millions of Americans would experience AGW as a terrible and tangible threat to their safety – and that of the their children – and maybe even as “a challenge to our fundamental values” if the nation’s agenda-setting and opinion- and feeling-shaping corporate media operatives and politicians (Candy Crowley and Barack Obama are just two among many) behaved in accord with the elementary requirements of public service by making the salvation of livable ecology the nation’s top priority. This would involve regularly making the Greenhouse Gas and weather connections understood by modern Earth science explicit, linking immediate dangers to the anthropogenic shrinking of rain forests, the mass die-offs of species, the accelerated passing of the world’s largest trees, the melting of tundra and permafrost, and the gurgling of methane across the vanishing Great North. It would involve connecting Americans’ fate with that of other people around the world, something far more distinctly global than the nationally specific problem of American gun violence.

For starters, it would require covering the climate and the environment, to which U.S. media gives miniscule attention at best. Gun violence, by sharp contrast, is a regularly nightly news staple.

That the political and media class doesn’t choose the priorities and make the connections required is a reflection all of the vast material, political, and propagandistic power of the corporate carbon-industrial complex (CCIC) and of the basic reality that the growth-addicted U.S. and global profits system runs on oil, gas, coal, and methane-spewing animal agriculture.[9] It’s one thing for that system’s owners and managers to see some assault weapons, magazine clips, and gun shows taken down and come off the streets. The system doesn’t quite run on private assault weapons and the domestic gun market.

It’s quite another thing for the unelected dictatorship to permit a serious political and policy response to the deadly carbon addiction that fuels its wealth. As a result, it invests heavily to prevent the populace from getting it that Exxon-Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the frackers and tar-sands extractors, the coal industry, and the rest of the vast CCIC are socio-pathological mass killers – highly organized and unimaginably wealthy exterminists who are steadily greenhouse-gassing humanity and other species into extinction. Thus, as Noam Chomsky told Occupy Boston in the fall of 2011, “large-scale propaganda operations, openly announced by the business community, seek to convince the public that climate change is all a liberal hoax. Why pay attention to these scientists?” [10] Media and political elites comply, selling the fake “debate” over global warming and consigning those who would rescue a livable Earth to a silly little corner for “you climate change people.”  The president does his best to pacify those with realistic fears of eco-cide with progressive-sounding Stockholm Syndrome rhetoric that masks persistent lethal petro-capitalist reality.

The money behind the disinformation campaign hasn’t come from just any old businesses, of course. As Leiserowitz notes, the campaign is “driven by fossil fuel company interests who are the world’s most profitable companies.” Those interests are “very happy, thank you very much,” Leiserowtiz notes “with the status quo.”[11] 

“Very happy,” that is, with the growing reality of environmental collapse on many fronts and most particularly catastrophic climate change resulting from excessive human generated carbon emissions.[12] According to research released in the spring of 2012 by the science journal Nature, humanity is now facing an imminent threat of extinction – a threat caused by its reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The report reveals that our planet’s biosphere is steadily and ever more rapidly approaching a “tipping point,” meaning that all of the planet’s ecosystems are nearing sudden and irreversible change that will not be conducive to human life. ”The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including… fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations,” wrote lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried,” co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said in a statement. “In fact, some are terrified.”[13]

Gun violence is a terrible and despicable problem, an American scandal that merits decisive public intervention on numerous levels. But let’s be clear about something here. The human and multi-species death count promised by the sociopaths in the CCIC and their many elite allies and enablers in the political and media Establishment is shaping up to make every other atrocity in the human past seem like child’s play. 

They Live, We Die

The next time you are startled by the crack of a stick behind you in the woods or by a car backfiring on the street, try not to worry about someone coming at you with a gun. Imagine instead an oil company CEO sitting around with his favorite lobbyists plotting the final destruction of life on Earth. Think of John Carpenter’s classic dystopian science fiction horror film They Live (1988)[14] and imagine the creepy Koch brothers (oil and energy capitalists above all) and their carbon-capitalist brethren as evil alien creatures running and ruining the planet for no other purposes than endless selfish gain. The institutional and societal reality of AGW behind is more complex than that, of course, but this would be a good starting point for many of us as we struggle to rewire our hearts and minds to meet the greatest threat of our or any human time.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com and www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real of Power (2010) and Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, 2011). He is currently finishing his next volume, to be released later this year: THEY RULE:  “The 1%” and the Profits System v. Democracy and the Future.

[1] Tampa Bay Times, PolitiFact com, “PBS Commentator Says More Killed By Guns Since ’68 Than in All U.S. Wars” (January 18, 2013),  http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/jan/18/mark-shields/pbs-commentator-mark-shields-says-more-killed-guns/ PolitiFact finds that 1.4 million Americans were killed by guns since June of 1968, compared to 1.1 million killed in wars between the Revolutionary War and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. 

[2] Jeff Goodell, “Obama’s Climate Challenge,” Rolling Stone, January 31, 2013, 41.

 [3] “Interview of the President by the CBC,” February 17, 2009, http://whitehouse.gov cited in John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark. “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2012).

 [4] For further details and sources on this terrible episode, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), 26-28. The judgment of leading climate activist George Monbiot: “The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama.”

[5] Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, “The Heat is On,” Mother Jones (January-February 2013), 6.

[6] What kind of work?  Here’s an excellent passage from Van Jones bestselling 2007 book The Green Collar Economy: “When you think about the…green economy, don’t think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and a lunch bucket, sleeves rolled up, going off to fix America. Think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines…If we are going to beat global warming [Jones wrote], we are going to have to weatherize millions of buildings. Install millions of solar panels, manufacture millions of wind turbine parts, plant and care for millions of trees, build millions of plug-in hybrid vehicles, and construct thousands of solar farms, wind farms, and wave farms. This will require…millions of jobs… And don’t think of green collar workers as laboring only in the energy sector…we will also need [well-paid] workers in a range of green industries: materials reuse and recycling, water management, local and organic food production, mass transportation and more.” Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (New York: Harper, 2009), 10-11. Jones, we should recall, served briefly as Obama “green jobs czar” until he was forced to resign when the president failed to defend him against paranoid right wing charges that he was a black nationalist, a communist, and a 9/11 conspiracy nut. .

[7] “Doomsday Clock Moves 1 Minute Closer to Midnight,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (January 10, 2012). http://www.thebulletin.org/content/media-center/announcements/2012/01/10/doomsday-clock-moves-1-minute-closer-to-midnight; “Doomsday Clock Remains at Five Minutes to Midnight,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January 14, 2013, http://www.thebulletin.org/content/media-center/announcements/2013/01/14/doomsday-clock-remains-five-minutes-to-midnight

[8] “Anthony Leiserowitz on Making People Care About Climate Change,” Moyers & Company (January 4, 2013), http://billmoyers.com/segment/anthony-leiserowitz-on-making-people-care-about-climate-change/

[9] On capitalism’s addiction to eco-cidal economic growth and its broader incompatibility with ecological survival, see  (among many possible citations) John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2012); John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), Charles Derber, From Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), 91-120; Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); Noam Chomsky, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenge to U.S. Empire (New York: Metropolitan, 2013), 170-71.

[10] Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 304-05.

[11] “Anthony Leiserowitz on Making.”

[12] Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could Be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#.

[13]  Common Dreams Staff, “Earth Facing Imminent Environmental Tipping Point: Report,” Common Dreams (June 7, 2012) at https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/06/07-3. On the current grave and deepening environmental crisis, see Foster et al., The Ecological Rift; MIT, “Climate Change Odds;”  Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007); Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010); James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007). 

[14] A must-see for progressives. In 1987, Carpenter penned and directed what the prolific left social critic and historian Mike Davis calls Carpenter’s “subversive tour de force” – They Live, a “depicti[on of] the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion.” (Mike Davis, Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible [Chicago: Haymarket, 2010], 1). In Carpenter’s brilliant, outwardly campy spoof, America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the business and professional elite. The extraterrestrials colonize America and the Earth, dismantling the nation in the name of “the free market.” They speak in hushed tones to one another through small radios installed in Rolex watches that symbolize their elevated status while providing a safe conduit for intra-alien communication. In a vast underground complex whose existence is kept secret from the hated human herd, they speak in outwardly idealistic terms of their real objectives – ruthless economic exploitation for the galactic Few sold as “growth” and “development” for the earthly Many – to a large audience of fellow aliens and a minority of well-off and co-opted human collaborators. Hyper-mobile across the galaxy in their shiny business suits, they send resources off-planet and manipulate the citizenry through subtle, subliminal forms of thought control encoded in advertisements and other corporate mass media content. “They’re free enterprisers,” a leading human resister of the alien presence explains: “the Earth is just another developing planet – their Third World.”  Human were “like a natural resource to them,” a different resister elaborates. “Deplete the planet and move on another. They want benign indifference. They want us drugged.”  Along the way, the aliens’ economic system generates unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and methane, heating the environment in ways that fit their own home climate but threatens life on Earth. As a human resister and scientist tries to explain: “Look at the environment we are living in: carbon dioxide and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.”

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By | 2013-02-06T13:22:50+00:00 February 6th, 2013|Articles|