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South Carolina Gov Nikki Haley and the Pope: Marty Nathan’s Gazette Column

Visible satellite imagery of Hurricane Joaquin at the time of its peak winds on October 3, 2015.  (from NOAA)

Visible satellite imagery of Hurricane Joaquin at the time of its peak winds on October 3, 2015. (from NOAA)

I used to have to wait for inspiration to write about climate change. Now it is most difficult – between the dramatic weather effects and the gathering struggle to stop greenhouse gas emissions – to decide which topic to choose and to find the time to write about it all.

I planned to write about the pope’s visit, but then Hurricane Joaquin hit, dumping a record 24 inches of rain on parts of South Carolina. Flooding has so far killed 12 people and Gov. Nikki Haley was prompted to call it “a thousand-year level of rain.”

Irony is a constant in climate change reporting. This was the same Haley who in 2012 buried her wildlife department’s honest but grim report of the potential impacts of global warming on her state and who only last year joined the state’s electric companies in blasting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its new rules limiting power plant carbon dioxide emissions.

Hurricane Joaquin should have taught a lesson such climate change deniers would do well to learn: global warming and its extreme weather is increasingly affecting everyone, no matter their ideology.

However, the major media are loath to point out Haley’s “gotcha!” moment. One has to search the news pretty thoroughly to find mention of the link between Joaquin’s flooding, the climate change Haley rejects and carbon emissions.

Yet July was the warmest month and climate scientists are convinced that 2015 will be by far the hottest year since recording began, due in great part to the warming of the oceans.

“What’s important is not so much the land but the ocean data. The oceans have really picked up in the last 12 months or so,” Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, told the London’s Independent.

And it is from these warmer oceans that more water is evaporated into warmer air to form massive hurricanes of the sort that used to occur every thousand years, but now are expected to hit our coasts every 25 to 50 years.

The massive rains dumped onto already-risen oceans cause Katrina-Sandy-Joaquin-type flooding that destroys the homes and lives particularly of the most vulnerable: the poor who are least able to evacuate or have nowhere to evacuate.

Will Joaquin convince Haley to comply with the EPA or enforce the cutting of carbon emissions in other ways to prevent further catastrophe? Will the poor neighborhoods of Charleston and Columbia get insulation, solar panels, bikeways and reliable public transit funded by a carbon tax on gas, oil and coal?

According to Pope Francis, in order to create the moral society to which we must move, capable of effectively stopping the march of climate change, the answer should be yes. In his Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, he calls on all of us, not just Catholics, to change our lifestyle from a consumer- and fossil fuel-based one to one that respects the interconnectedness of all creatures and eliminates the suffering caused by our world’s growing economic disparity.

Profit for corporations and technological progress must no longer be the sole criteria on which to base social and governmental decisions. Such a limited and short-sided approach destroys the environment on which we all rely, punishes the poor and spiritually robs the affluent.

Watching the pope in the United States, one climate activist observed that he is a man in a great hurry, a man who recognizes that climate change is hitting us now, and we have no time to lose. Though his written and spoken message is profound and necessary, it is possible that it is the urgency that he imparts that has impacted us most.

Though it is difficult in our very busy lives, we need to allow ourselves to feel that urgency and apply it. Taking a different course away from the Hurricane Joaquins and the massive western wildfires, the melting permafrost and the rising seas means acting now, in real time, to prevent the building of new carbon infrastructure like the Northeast Energy Direct and the Keystone XL pipelines.

It means supporting the growing divestment movement of all our public institutions from carbon-based stocks and bonds. It means putting the brakes on the TransPacific Partnership that would not only ship decent jobs overseas, but would destroy environmental protection around the globe to protect profit.

The pope alludes to the need for a new democracy propelling and enabling the climate and human justice movement. “…(P)ublic pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action…Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”

There is urgency but also hope here, to which all of us can adhere. There is a possibility for community beyond that which we have seen. Let’s take him up on it.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.

(Marty Nathan is on the steering committee of Climate Action Now.  Published in the Hampshire Daily Gazette: Saturday, October 10, 2015)