With the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy upon us, the US press has been full of reflections, comparisons, opinions, and every other type of story that can be wrung out of the event. I’ve skipped over most of them, but this one, from Outside Magazine author David Gessner, caught my eye with its wonderful lede:
THE PROPHET AND I return to the drowned city. Trailing robes behind him, he will point his wooden staff at the places where the waters rose, the subway steps turned into rapids, and the cross streets became fast-flowing inlets. He’ll gesture toward the river, explaining how it was pushed back by the winds and tide, how the full moon affected this most modern of places. Four years ago, when he pointed at these same spots and told me what was going to happen to New York City, I only half believed him. Now I believe, along with everyone else. We have seen it with our own eyes.
The prophet’s name is Orrin Pilkey, and his day job, for many years, was as a coastal geologist at Duke University, where he started teaching in 1965 and is now a professor emeritus.
From the first sentence, I was thinking, “Seriously?” Prophets, robes and divination? No thanks, that’s not my style. But the second paragraph made me laugh — and then it made me think. We science geeks value facts, and educated predictions extrapolated from more facts. But what are educated predictions if not a form of prophecy?
Orrin Pilkey got it right. He predicted the effects of a superstorm on New York City right down to the exact subway stops that would flood. And like most prophets — including those on the New York City Panel on Climate Change, whose report warned of flood dangers two and a half years before Sandy — he was paid little mind.
The rest of the article is worth a read, though you’ll need to sit down and take your time with it. Pilkey has one simple solution for guarding against future coastal flooding and storm disasters: retreat. His solution is echoed by many other scientists, who question the wisdom of providing federal dollars to rebuild in the exact same danger zones. But while the prophets advise retreat, Americans (and indeed people all over the world) move to the coasts in greater and greater numbers. I don’t think we need prophets to predict the results of that trend.
Mother Jones also has a good long form article on the topic, geared more toward the issue of how we humans are far better at spending truckloads of money for emergency recovery, rather than spending relatively small amounts for prevention. Hampering the efforts of many local and federal officials is the right-wing American denial of anything involving the words “climate change” — so in the Republican districts, the local authorities are careful to never use those words.
“I wouldn’t want to turn some positive influences off by coming up with a political term,” said Paul Koll, Gloucester County’s building official. “I am really conscious of not labeling it anything so I don’t shoot myself in the foot.” Two years ago, when leaders in neighboring Mathews County broached the subject of sea level rise, tea partiers packed meetings warning of an environmentalist plot to “put nature above man.”
Helping people who deny the very existence of a problem: there’s a difficult task. It’s like trying to clear people out of a burning theater while they’re insisting that the smoke is just from the fog machine on stage. And if you call it smoke, you’re being “political.”