For some time now I've been trying to write down my feelings about what CNN is calling Superstorm Sandy.
I've been working on climate change for ten years now. I earned my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, where I lived and breathed facts and forecasts on how global warming would drastically affect our humanity's interconnectedness with the world. Before the Arctic became nearly completely ice-free in the summer; before my home town regularly suffered 10- and 15-degree hotter-than-normal temperatures; before Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans. I had learned that this phenomenon was happening and would only get worse.
But, I have to admit that a part of me really hoped that global warming wasn't happening. Actually, let me rephrase that: I didn't believe that climate change was happening. Of course I knew the statistics. I saw the news reports. I intellectually understood what was going on. But I did not believe it.
Let me be clear. I'm not calling myself that kind of climate change denialist. I know what climate change is. I trust the scientific consensus. Global warming is a serious issue that needs a diversity of policy solutions. What I'm saying is that there is a difference between knowledge and belief. And it's easier to 'believe' something if you feel that your personal bubble is bursting.
After all, I've never been to New Orleans. Or Tuvalu. Or Pakistan. Or the Arctic. As serious as these crises may have been, I had no personal frame-of-reference to the changes there. It felt more personal when Toronto got hit by heatwave after heatwave, but there was little direct destruction caused to the city itself. It was easy, even for someone like me, to think 'Perhaps the professional climate skeptics were right...'. The heat wave in my home town could just be part of the normal variability. After all, I studied Earth Sciences, so I knew what they were saying was a definite possibility.
But there's something about New York City. New York is embedded into the Western psyche. It's why everyone knows that JFK is also an airport and why taxicabs look strange when they're not yellow. New York is the model for how we think a city should be. Look at the word 'downtown': It's now English vernacular meaning 'central business district' even though the term makes no sense anywhere except on Manhattan.
And the icon is so powerful that it's intentionally targeted by terrorists and film directors alike, because they know we'll have a visceral reaction to the sight of the Empire State Building under siege.
When I see a hurricane flicking off the New York skyline and rising waters submerging the its subway tunnels and iconic taxicabs, global warming ceases to be an intellectual exercise to me. Rather than just knowing that the climate is changing, I start feeling it. I start believing it.
For someone who's been doing this as long as I have, realizing that a part of me has been denying global warming for this long is a little bit shocking.