Climate change is drowning us

October 6, 2016

Liam Flynn-Jambeck, whose family survived Hurricane Sandy, extends solidarity to those facing Hurricane Matthew--and draws lessons about the need for radical change.

MY HEART breaks as Category 4 Hurricane Matthew slams Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba.

When Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, it was a very hard time for my family. The entire neighborhood was destroyed--every single house was 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 4 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.

But 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, leave little hope for an inhabitable planet. We have arrived at our last chance.

A house in Rockaway demolished by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy
A house in Rockaway demolished by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy (Jeremy Zilar)

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 floodwaters 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 watched. Another mother got trapped in the basement when the floodwaters 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 losing 250,000 people and 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 front lines who have paid the ultimate sacrifice before them.

Yet again, those who die from climate change weren't those whose lifestyles created the problem in the first place. 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 the 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--some say there will be no fish at all by then. The entire Pacific now has radiation from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant spill in Japan. The Great Coral Reef is in disrepair, surface temperatures are skyrocketing. The oceans are the lungs of the Earth, producing more than half of the world's oxygen. We need them.

It's not just glaciers that are melting--Artic permafrost is, too, 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.

The five mass extinctions have all been preceded by increased methane levels. With other major contributors like industrial agriculture and fracking, methane has been sharply increasing. Nothing to take lightly.

The fossil fuel cartels now own stake to enough oil reserves in the ground to destroy five planet Earths. They bought off the politicians and control (or prevent) 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. The 2016 debates have 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 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, rising sea level as glaciers melt, loss of drinking water supply and increased civil unrest in times of resource wars. What will happen if the sea rises three feet by 2100 as NASA predicts, forcing 200 million people from their homes?

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, allow no return, no chance to leave a recognizable planet to babies born already. We have arrived at our last chance. It'll 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 the storm dissipates, I am saddened to think that stories like from Sandy's are happening right now in other parts of the world.

It's easy to get overwhelmed, to feel powerless, to not be sure on how to do your part. But there are billions of people whose lifestyles aren't what caused this crisis of crisis, whose lives depend on us from doing our part. Now is not the time to be paralyzed by guilt, but rather a time to realize that the solutions to this problem exist and are ready to be implemented.

So tonight, 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. It's up to us to create it.

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