truck damaged in Joplin tornado
Joplin, MO was only one of the places in the US to see weird weather this year. Climate change or not? Photo: el clinto via Flickr.

When it comes to climate change “denial is still the dominant response,” writes Paul Gilding in The Great Disruption. “We won’t change at scale until the crisis is full blown and undeniable, until the wind really kicks up speed. But then we will change.”

When I read Gilding’s book I thought it would take something like this year’s historic storms and floods in the Midwest and South to wake Americans from their stupor on climate.

But now I’m not so sure if even climate disaster will be enough.

Undeniable tornadoes and floods

If there was ever was a time of climate disaster, now seems like a good candidate. “Relentless rainfall – a deluge that dumped five months worth of rain in just 14 days – and a massive spring snowmelt have had a devastating effect along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to take extreme measures,” as Public Radio International put it.

Demolition experts blew up levees along the Mississippi in a daring effort to protect cities and towns from record-breaking floodwaters. Meanwhile, states in the South and Southeast have been experiencing an unprecedented number of intense tornadoes. In April, nearly 900 tornadoes tore through the region – four times as many as usual. Before the tornadoes, the upper-Midwest was hit by near-record snow pack. When that melted, it sent a huge amount of floodwater down the Mississippi.

“This is all quite expected and due in part to a warmer atmosphere and climate change,” according to meteorologist Jeff Masters. There are near-record temperatures at the surface of the ocean on the Gulf of Mexico. The warm air from there is colliding with cold air from Canada to create extreme weather.

Learning the wrong lesson

“‘Americans won’t wake up and get serious about climate change until there’s a disaster.’ I’ve been hearing people say that for years, but more and more lately. There’s always an uptick after a political defeat like the failure of the climate bill,” David Roberts writes in Grist. But waiting for the definitive climate disaster may not be the foolproof strategy that some think.

First, disasters cause lots of suffering, and if there’s any way to stop them from happening in advance through political action, then we should take what action we can.

Second, really bad natural disasters will probably not bring in their wake considered, thoughtful and well planned efforts to cut greenhouse gases, save energy and make industrial society more resilient. As Roberts writes,

Even if there were one truly huge weather disaster, or a series of mid-level disasters in close succession, or something of similarly catastrophic impact, there’s no guarantee that our collective response would be benign, or move us closer to smart policy. People don’t tend to respond to trauma with good will and foresight. They respond with their amygdala: their fight-or-flight, us-or-them, zero-sum reptile brain. They become more susceptible to demagoguery, nationalism, and xenophobia, not less. I’m not sure a battered and fearful American public is one we can expect to embrace progressive change.

So, if the Big One hits, don’t expect President Obama to appoint Amory Lovins and Julia Butterfly Hill to convene a national roundtable on high speed rail, walkable neighborhoods and an Apollo Project to install solar panels and wind turbines.

Instead, expect martial law where FEMA and the National Guard start forced evacuations, set up refugee camps, and ration food and fuel. Then, when things calm down a bit, look for Washington to launch an all-out effort to get the economy going again by providing energy from sources that politicians think are most easily at hand — oil and gas, coal and nukes.

There’s always denying the undeniable

Some people are saying that the tornadoes and floods are just part of a normal La Nina cycle.

Which illustrates the biggest problem of all with the “Just you wait, ye of little climate faith” approach: Since the Garden of Eden, humans have shown a true mastery in arguing two sides of just about any issue, from Jehovah vs. Baal, to flat Earth vs. round Earth, to Great Taste vs. Less Filling.

The basics of climate science have been decided by the international scientific community. Yet, ever since big polluters began seriously funding climate deniers in the 1990s, climate change has become the ultimate two-sided issue in the mind of the American public.

“With so many scientists on both sides, I just don’t know what to think about man-made global warming,” says Joe Sixpack. “I guess we better not do anything drastic until we know for sure about global warming. Otherwise, we could hurt the economy for no reason at all.” And that’s just how big polluters want to keep it.

From Hurricane Katrina, to the hockey stick of rising temperatures and greenhouse gases to polar bears’ ability to find enough ice flows to hunt on, nearly every story about the onset of climate change is met with a counter-story from climate deniers who say it isn’t so.

No wonder climate crusader Bill McKibben has taken to sarcasm, as he did in the Washington Post last week. With Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico facing drought worse than the Dust Bowl, with megafloods in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in the past year and with the melting now for the first time in thousands of years, McKibben says NOT to connect weird weather to climate change.

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

There have been tornadoes before. There have been hurricanes before. There have been floods before. And we’ll have them all again.

So don’t worry about climate change, McKibben urges. Just go back to getting really pissed off about $4 a gallon gas.

Disaster won’t save us, even in an ironic way

For my part, I used to think that America would remain in climate denial until rising sea levels reached the Capitol steps.

But now I’m not even holding out for that. Because by then, I’m sure they’ll already have moved the federal government to Denver. And as long as the US Chamber of Commerce and their ilk tag along, then there will always be some other explanation for weird weather: natural cycles, solar flares, just dumb luck. And some good reason why cutting greenhouse pollution would destroy the economy.

And the band will play on.

Unless between now and then, ordinary citizens can dethrone America’s plutocracy and take back our climate and energy policy from Big Oil, Big Coal and nukes. The public overwhelmingly wants clean energy. And we’ve also shown that we’ll get on board with conservation in a time of pressing national need. That’s what we did during World War II. We did it again to get through the energy crises of the 1970s.

With peak oil here, we’ll have to pay more for energy in the future anyway. So it might as well come from solar and wind and not from tar sands, fracked gas and deepwater oil.

Someday $4 gas will sound quaintly cheap. And in a world punished by climate chaos, someday today’s storms could sound like a gentle summer breeze.

The weird weather is here. But the climate denial still isn’t gone. So we clearly can’t count on weird weather to do our political dirty work.

That means it’s time for ordinary citizens to release our own storm of whoop-ass on the Koch brothers and all the lying liars they pay to say that weird weather is just weird weather. Time to stand up for science and work for an end to America’s suicidal climate and energy policy.

— Erik Curren