Do the Math

Environmentalist Bill McKibben will speak in Durham on Monday, Nov. 19, about the crisis of climate change. The event will be held in Page Auditorium at Duke University at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 and are available at’s website.

Having hurled whole bays of seawater onto drenched shores, Sandy’s surges are finally quelling, but the aftermath is “incalculable,” according to media reports. Livid winds lifted land and buildings, reshaping the East Coast, which suffered more than $60 billion in damages. Thousands of homes and businesses were flooded with sewage and chemicals. Millions of people were left in the dark, and more than 80 were lost to its violence. Before landing, the Associated Press called Sandy a “freakish and unprecedented monster,” a “Frankenstorm.”

Unprecedented fear was artfully described by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). About her own monster, Shelley wrote, “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

We sometimes forget that Frankenstein was the name of the scientistthe monster’s creatornot the monster itself. For Shelley, the real monster was Victor Frankenstein himself, his unflinching aim to violate the dead through reanimation. I wonder if Sandy is our own ogreish creation? Is this why “Frankenstorm” went virala neologism that tells us more about its maker than its intention?

For sure, climate change is many forces and nuancessome human-influenced and others beyond our control. Change is precarious, even capricious: That’s why we love and fear it. It may be that the planet is warming on its own accord, but we cannot afford to deny that human industrial efforts are part of the change, especially in its fierceness.

I’m not optimistic that Sandy will loosen the tight-lipped mumbling that is our national discussion on climate change. But who can deny that Sandy, at least in its intensity and strength, is a consequence of a changing climate? And yet, the heartbreaking truth is that denial is a recalcitrant force.

Denial is a privilege that no should have: neither the 1 percent nor the 99 percent. But denial is not a simple thing. We deny we are in denial. Sometimes it can be a reprieve, a strategy or a defense to deny difficult knowledge. But denial requires a counterweight, something worth denying.

Sandy might have been unparalleled, a triumvirate of storm fronts whirled into catastrophic forces, but it was no monster of Frankenstein. Rather, Sandy could be described as a “Kochenstein storm,” a product of the beastly wealth of the Brothers Koch (our 21st-century Brothers Grimm). The disavowal of climate change has been tooled in the filthy workshops and bloody cellars of their corporate interests.

Through their colossal largesse, the Koch brothers, David and Charles, have funneled nearly $100 million toward the suppression of climate change science. Delaying policies and regulations aimed at thwarting global warming, the Brothers Koch have a vested interest in obstructing action and conjuring distortion. They’ve made their billions through Koch Industries, an oil corporation that is among the largest privately held companies in the United States.

In 2007, funded in part by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, a scientific paper appeared in Ecological Complexity arguing that the Arctic sea ice decline is less severe than the literature purports. Following this claim, the authors challenged modeling that indicates climate change threatens polar bear populations. On reddened rafts of ice, melted sea all around, polar bears are eating one other, while Koch-supported science feeds on our national denial, fattening the portfolios of the egregiously rich and impoverishing the already stretched.

The success of the Koch plan is startling. A 2011 Stanford University poll found that climate change denial has grown stronger. People “who are extremely or very certain that global warming is not happening rose from 35 percent in 2010 to 53 percent in 2011.” With climate change, denial’s lure is obvious: Who wants to accept a truth that promises to upset “the good life,” or any life?

A changing climate feels enormous, imperceptible, and then a storm like Sandy crashes against the shores of our consciousness, literally and figuratively. We are confronted with blunt truths about the future of the planet. And yet, one of the great frauds of the new century, many of us resist our own experiences of climate in favor of partisan politics or religious extremism, while protecting the greed of international raiders. Despite the increasing environmental vulnerability of climate change deniers, they enable the most heinous forms of natural resource exploitation.

However, the haranguers of deniersa position in which I often find myselfare no less a barrier to action on climate change. We ask, “How can you deny industrial impact on global warming?!” We think, “Well, I’m not denying climate change.” Convinced that we are attentive to our fear, to the monsters brewing in the cauldron of capital, still we do not alter our course. Our inaction betrays another level of our denial. In general, “Americans see global warming as a distant problem,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at Yale University. “Distant in time and in space. It’s a problem for polar bears or small islands in the middle of the ocean. Not for me, my town, or my community.”

Though we teeter on oblivion, and our irrepressible denial burns on, we find a way to breathe into the unpredictability of life on this planet. We know that optimism is unsustainable, but so is cynicism. Stomping about as an ideologue doesn’t help (even if it sometimes feels righteous).

Sandy is an eerie prefiguring of the Frankenweather to come. Maybe there is a lesson in Shelley’s Frankenstein. While depicted as a “vile insect” and “abhorred fiend,” the reader comes to empathize with the monster’s misery. Rather than denying the creature humanity, we come to understand it as utterly human. Similarly, might our planet’s miseryas witnessed by Sandy’s rampagebe our own?