Society

After Sandy: What Do We Do Now?

A condemned house in the Ocean Breeze area of New York City's Staten Island. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge from superstorm Sandy. i i

A condemned house in the Ocean Breeze area of New York City's Staten Island. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge from superstorm Sandy. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty Images
A condemned house in the Ocean Breeze area of New York City's Staten Island. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge from superstorm Sandy.

A condemned house in the Ocean Breeze area of New York City's Staten Island. Most homes in the seaside community were inundated by the ocean surge from superstorm Sandy.

John Moore/Getty Images

Sandy is scary. And it's scary to think that there's more where she came from. This may be a turning point. Finally, it seems, fear wins.

The fear dynamic has been at the heart of the debate about climate change in the United States, or rather, at the heart of the lack of debate.

Americans are not climate-change deniers. Americans just haven't gotten the memo that they're supposed to be scared.

Part of the problem is that we've heard about threats to the environment before. As a nation we have been raised on a diet saturated with fear of the future, fear of what we are bringing on ourselves. We've been told to worry about overpopulation, food and water shortages, pollution, nuclear winter, extinction and the loss of diversity, AIDS and the emergence of new killer viruses like Ebola, the hole in the ozone layer. There's even that island of plastic bags said to be forming out in the middle of the ocean somewhere.

When it comes to climate change, don't confuse a broad refusal to be afraid with an indifference to — or even ignorance of — what climate science teaches. The facts are not in dispute. It's the attitude that's in question.

"Granted," people say to themselves, "human action is causing global warming with all its attendant changes in weather patterns. But is that bad? Who's to say? Change isn't bad in itself, after all! What are the weather patterns supposed to be like, anyway? And won't we be able to come up with a solution?"

Enter Sandy, coming hard on the tail of Irene, and in the living memory of Katrina and Andrew.

Images of New York City dark and cold and under water. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Fear is an appropriate response to a storm, and to the idea that there are more storms on the way. I think a lot of people are going to start to feel more comfortable with the idea that fear is the right response. Global warming is scary! Does this mean a lot of people will give in to fear?

You can be smart without being afraid. But can you be afraid, and still be smart? Yes, but it isn't easy. Just look at the U.S. response to the threat of international terrorism.

So I ask: what do we do now?


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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