The Cone of Uncertainty: Parenting on the Edge of Climate Change
There’s a special kind of dread that breeds in the path of a hurricane.
They call it the ‘cone of uncertainty’ – that brightly coloured funnel on the weather map that traces the possible paths of a storm. It’s a statistical mishmash created from dozens of predictions of varying quality, and when you see the dark red centre touch your part of the map, you can almost feel the barometric pressure dropping. You might have days to prepare, days before you know whether it’ll really hit you and how badly. You might not have days to get out, not if the roads are clogged and the gas stations are mobbed; certainly not if you have to work and don’t have cash on hand. You hunker down as best you can, waiting for the first rainbands and the next, for the eye to pass over and the eyewall to return.
Two months before Hurricane Irma, I take my seven-year-old daughter down Alligator Alley: the stretch of Interstate 75 that runs through the Everglades, the massive wetland that covers most of South Florida. It now spans only half the three million acres it once covered, thanks to the breakneck pace of agricultural development and suburban McMansions, but that’s still enough to make the maps look as though the Florida peninsula was dipped into a vat of green. Eight million people – a third of the state’s population – draw their drinking water from this wild and desolate place.
Travelers are advised to bring plenty of water, food, a canister of gas, and a first-aid kit, since there are no hospitals or restaurants and cellular coverage is minimal. Alligator Alley has only the Miccosukee and Seminole reservations and a few rest stops with bathrooms and vending machines. Flocks of turkey buzzards populate the picnic pavilions. A few feet from the parked cars, solid land drops off into sawgrass marsh. It would be easy to step out into the swamp and disappear: this is a protected reserve for the Florida panther, for birds and fish, and of course for alligators. Back when the Everglades was bigger, wilder, enslaved Africans escaped from sugarcane plantations and ran for their lives into those tall, sharp blades. Those who survived found aid and alliances with the local Seminole people.
I tell my daughter about this as we drive from my grandmother’s funeral in Miami to my parents’ house near Clearwater. We watch towering thunderheads sweep across the sea of grass, pouring furiously on us and then retreating into darkness, leaving a rainbow in the rear-view mirror. I want to take her to the Seminole reservation, to skim across the water in a noisy fan-powered airboat so she will remember this place. There is a museum there, too, with recreated houses on stilts, connected by little bridges. It’s a testament to human adaptation, to learning how to live in three feet of alligator-infested water. These are things I want her to learn – but the sun is brutal and the mosquitoes already have the taste of our blood, so we stay in the car. With no way to stream music, we sing our way through endless hours of the same view: water, sawgrass, power lines strung along the horizon, straight road ahead.
I remember what my cousin Ross, an Orlando comedian, told me about deciding to home-school his sons: ‘I want them to see Florida while it’s still here.’ I tell my daughter to remember, remember this. I want her to tell her grandchildren about it – as though it isn’t the height of arrogant optimism to imagine her grandchildren.
‘I want to go to space,’ she tells me. Seven-year-olds have a way of changing the subject abruptly, so I go with it. She’s always wanted to be a veterinarian. Why this sudden shift? ‘So we can still be alive even when the earth burns up.’
The impending planetary catastrophe is often on her mind. She thinks about death a lot. This is normal, of course – children ask the most important questions, especially at funerals, and God help the adults who don’t answer them seriously. She declares her desire to be buried, not cremated; she wants her beloved companion Doggy Pillow buried with her, so no one can bother it. ‘What kind of species will take over the earth after we’re gone?’ she asks. I admit I don’t know. ‘I don’t want them to mess with Doggy Pillow.’
If it has occurred to her that I will probably die before she does, she hasn’t mentioned it. But the planet will die before she does, that much seems clear – the planet as we know it, at any rate, the one that supports us and feeds us and slakes our thirst.
Her love of animals makes her a natural conservationist, and in the Anthropocene even books for children must address what is going on. Do you like sharks? Did you know that sharks can displace their jaws to snap at prey? Did you know that sharks are disappearing at an astonishing rate? My daughter declares that she will save the oceans by putting up signs telling people not to litter. It sounds no less effective than carbon offset trading.
She is surprised when I tell her about the icy, snowy Pennsylvania winters of my 1980s childhood. Her Pennsylvania winters are not like that. This February the ice-cream truck came by and we ate our cones on the back porch in the sunshine. Her friend’s ice-skating birthday party was cancelled due to a lack of ice.
Why, she asks, don’t we do something? Shouldn’t we be freaking out?
We read a book about second-graders who want to fight global warming. ‘What really freaks grown-ups out is not being in charge,’ the characters say. ‘If grown-ups weren’t scared of nature, they’d probably try harder to save it from global warming.’
We are freaking out, of course: quietly, while the oligarch-in-chief dismantles what little inadequate infrastructure might even notionally allow us do something on any major scale. We perform our anger, our disbelief, but the world is too busy ending to witness our performance. We go to work with an extra layer of sunscreen or an inhaler for the allergic asthma that flares when the trees, jarred from their seasonal rhythm, release their pollen all at once. We are scared of nature. We are most definitely not in charge.
At the end of June, a news conference: prominent figures from the UN and the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with an urgent message. Runaway irreversible climate change, the headlines read.
The Paris Accords, from which President Trump has made an undignified exit, were never enough, never even intended to be enough. They aimed for a rise of no more than 1.5° Celsius – but research indicates that this is unlikely, given that ‘average global temperatures were already more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38°C in February and March’ in 2016. ‘Sharp and permanent’ reductions to carbon emissions are needed in the next three years if we are even to mitigate the consequences. Chris Field of Stanford University, co-chair of the IPCC working group on adaptation to climate change, comments that ‘the 1.5°C goal now looks impossible or at the very least, a very, very difficult task. We should be under no illusions about the task we face.’ Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is blunt: ‘The maths is brutally clear: while the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence [before] 2020.’
Three years. We thought we had twenty.
In July 2017, climate change seems imminent but still more or less distant. It’s possible, especially if you are a politician, to ignore something that is three years away. We inhabit the deep red centre of the cone of uncertainty, but the skies are still clear. We are the doomed Russian aristocrats who spent the summer of 1917 partying with wild abandon, their ears popping with the pressure of a brewing revolution. It’s not the proletariat or peasantry rising up to relieve us of our luxuries, though: it’s the earth itself, sea and sky working in coalition, trees and air conspiring.
We look at the numbers: If we cut all carbon emissions to net zero in the next twenty years – a feat that would require the overthrow of capitalism – we might, might, escape with a sea-level rise that is only catastrophic, with only mass migrations and hunger and thirst, with only a drastic reduction in our species instead of extinction.
Three years for a change so drastic as to be completely incompatible with capitalism. It feels impossible – but then, what changes felt impossible in 1914? In 1932? We laugh now at Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that we had reached the ‘end of history’. Yet climate change presents, if not an end to history’s course, then a sharp and dangerous corner around which we cannot see. History’s pace quickens as the climate warms, events piling onto one another with disorienting speed, norms changing irreversibly. We will have to change faster, or the last opportunity will slip away without our even grasping for it. The task before us is mass expropriation on a scale not seen since perhaps the end of US slavery, a reversal of the colonial land grab that began the process – and if it doesn’t happen now, we can expect to abandon city after city to the rising waters. If that expropriation has the potential to be unfathomably violent, we have already begun to fathom the violence that awaits us if we eschew it. The world my daughter will know at seventeen is going to be radically different from this one; when she is old, our world maps will be even less familiar to her than 1914’s are to us.
By October, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, everything has changed. Three years have become three months. The first bands of the great storm are making landfall in Trump’s America.
Hurricanes barrel down the Gulf Stream in rapid sequence, each one bigger than the last. Houston is inundated; explosions rock the chemical plants of Cancer Alley. Irma bears down on the Caribbean and Florida, flattening Dominica and leaving Barbuda entirely uninhabitable. Then Maria is the name of the dread and when it passes, Puerto Rico is left without power or fresh water indefinitely, its infrastructure – already fragile from colonial exploitation and austerity programs – damaged beyond repair and the mainland all too eager to abandon Puerto Ricans to their fate. Ophelia takes a right turn and heads, bewilderingly, for Ireland. Out west, wildfires rage uncontrollably, leaving an apocalyptic landscape and a housing crisis in their wake.
Two months after we trace its path through the swamp, the artificial bulwark on which Alligator Alley is built will be overwhelmed, the winds and floods displacing water and gators alike. Irma, a slow-churning monster far larger than 1992’s legendary Andrew, makes landfall in Florida as a Category 4 after wreaking devastation in the Caribbean. Miami’s sewer system, already heavily taxed by rising waters, floods. My parents flee their island home, expecting a storm surge as high as their rooftop, though at the last minute the cone of uncertainty will shift.
My father, a Florida native, natural-gas engineer, and lifelong boater but never much of a critic of capitalism, is relieved to escape with minimal damage. But people who live on barrier islands keep an eye on the sky. The threat of environmental destruction looms as tall as the thunderheads that form every afternoon here. Dad tells me he’s terrified of what his industry is doing: hydraulic fracking could easily contaminate the peninsula’s shallow water table. Once that happens, there’s no going back. ‘How can they be so short-sighted?’ he asks me, gazing over the steering wheel as we cross the long causeway over Tampa Bay, his eyes lighting on boats and small islands. ‘How do they expect to do business if there’s no fresh water?’
When Irma arrives, it sucks the water out of Tampa Bay. Under the causeway, those who haven’t evacuated walk through the mud to gape at piles of seaweed and gasping fish or attempt to rescue stranded manatees.
In the rich subtropical farmland that rings the Everglades, crops are devastated, with growers of tomatoes, citrus, corn, and sugarcane reporting 80 to 90 percent crop losses. The mostly migrant labour force here bears, as always, the brunt of the suffering: their flimsy rental homes destroyed, power and gas supplies disrupted, food and medicine scarce. Their water supply is badly damaged: water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. When aid eventually arrives, it comes not from President Trump’s federal government but from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Taco Bell imports its tomatoes for a while; the workers go unpaid. Things fall apart, for one if not the other.
Hurricane Maria, following close on Irma’s heels, leaves Puerto Rico dark and thirsty and desperate, half its 3.4 million people without drinking water. Even before the storm, the water supply was unreliable: in 2015, as Nathalie Baptiste points out in Mother Jones, 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were getting their drinking water from sources contaminated enough to violate the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Three weeks after the storm, CNN reports that its journalists ‘watched workers from the Puerto Rican water utility . . . distribute water from a well at the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which was listed in 2016 as part of the federal Superfund program for hazardous waste cleanup’. When they informed the queuing workers, Dorado resident Jose Luis Rodriguez shrugged. ‘I don’t have a choice. This is the only option I have’, he replied.
Water infrastructure is at or well over its limits in other parts of the United States, too. Hurricane Harvey left hundreds of thousands of Texans without potable water; in the absence of federal aid, the HEB grocery chain sent a convoy south. Water supplies in the impoverished, mostly African American former auto-manufacturing centre of Flint, Michigan, were contaminated by lead in 2014; as many as 12,000 children were exposed to damaging levels of lead. Official indifference and coverups are now being investigated and the city is still without safe water. Also in 2014, in West Virginia’s coal country, a chemical storage facility’s neglect led to a massive chemical spill that contaminated tap water in eight counties, including the capital city of Charleston, with 10,000 gallons of crude methylcyclohexanemethanol. Two years later, the US Chemical Safety Board reported that ‘investigation determined that nationwide water providers have likely not developed programs to determine the location of potential chemical contamination sources, nor plans to respond to incidents such as the one in Charleston’.
The children of the West Virginia and Michigan workers abandoned by the fossil-fuel economy measure their growing bodies’ strength by hefting jugs of clean water, just as children did in the Rust Belt town where I was raised when our water became undrinkable. The proximate cause of this abandonment is rarely climate change, of course: it’s a pipeline, a power plant, an occupation that grabs precious resources. It’s the rich leaving the poor to thirst or burn or starve. They adapt, as children always have. But they know when they have been left behind, and the fear and anger of that realisation shapes them. They stand up and fight alongside their elders, as children always have – at Standing Rock and South Baltimore, in Guangdong and Gaza – and when the guns and hoses and experimental sonic weapons point at them, they are changed forever.
They are coming of age at the precise point where the temperature graph spikes, the moment things fall apart on a grand scale. They don’t have the luxury of separating struggles. Those still sheltered now will be that much more shocked when the winds or the guns turn on them. Though climate change strikes unevenly, hitting the poorest and most disenfranchised first, none of us is a true outsider. (The richest of the rich know this: they have already lined up their luxury bunkers, private militaries, even space shuttles.) As Naomi Klein points out in 2014’s This Changes Everything, ‘no one is exempt from the real-world impacts of increasingly extreme weather, or from the simmering psychological stress of knowing that we may very well grow old – and our young children may well grow up – in a climate significantly more treacherous than the one we currently enjoy’. No one will be exempt from the trauma now beginning to unfold.
I buy canned food, bottled water, and dust masks to store for emergencies. My husband buys a go bag and a solar USB charger. We go to a gun shop and feel the heft of a Glock 19 in our hands. Just in case?
I read my little girl another book, in which a Polish woman hides Jewish children from the Nazis in laundry bags. My daughter has questions. I try to explain the scale of the Holocaust but it is too big for sense-making. She does not understand how big the oceans are, either. (Do I?)
It might be arrogant to imagine her children, but I do. I see them sitting around a fire, trading stories of the Time Before, like characters in dystopian novels. I walk into a vast Whole Foods, overflowing with abundance – towering displays of chocolate and fish and other wonders they’ll never taste – and imagine trying to describe to them the excesses of neoliberal capitalism. They always laugh in disbelief when I get to the part about the coffee bar with a barista robot.
Klein writes of grilling salmon and pausing to imagine herself describing the fish – ‘its electric color, its jeweled texture – to a child living in a world where these wild creatures had disappeared’. I melt a square of dark chocolate on my tongue and try to store away the sensation, to make what will one day be a distant memory as vivid as possible. If there are grandchildren, if our children love and fuck and bring babies into the world and those babies survive, will they resent us for our chocolate? When even a taste is rare or impossible, will they picture us gorging on piles of Hershey bars and curse us?
How to explain that we dedicated our ingenuity to everything except survival?
Klein calls this pattern of pre-emptive grief ‘pre-loss’; Richard Seymour refers to it as ‘melancholic subjectivity’ in the face of mourning. I too indulge, wondering how long we’ll be able to live in the city, to bathe and shower whenever we please, to rely on the transit networks now crumbling before our eyes – the luxuries of a settler-colonial working class.
This is why we read dystopian fiction, of course: to bask in what we have, knowing that we might well lose it the next time the cone of uncertainty falls across us. To imagine what our priorities will be when the imposed priorities of the bosses at last melt away. To substitute grotesque but tangible zombies and vampires and monsters, as we always have, for fears too large and unpredictable to populate our imaginations. (David McNally writes in Monsters of the Market that ‘monsters are warnings – not only of what may happen but also of what it already happening. Yet, as we have seen, cultures often repress and deny the most profound warnings of monstrous happenings.’) To fantasise about our own ingenuity and toughness, our ability to not just survive but to build something real amid a devastation we know is inevitable. After all, if we fail – if all we do is die – there is no story. The pages of the book are blank after chapter one, and no one is left to read it. Our imaginations fail here too. So we imagine our grandchildren building a humble but socialist world from little islands of mutual aid perched on stilts over three feet of alligator-infested water, and we watch the skies.
Psychiatrist Judith Herman tells us in Trauma and Recovery that ‘integrity is the capacity to affirm the value of life in the face of death, to be reconciled with the finite limits of one’s own life and the tragic limitations of the human condition, and to accept these realities without despair’. Seymour takes this a step further, citing John Berger’s ‘undefeated despair’: ‘We give up without giving up. . . . We despair, but we do not submit.’
We know now that we are the last of capitalism’s gravediggers. We have failed: our ambivalence about destroying the system we know is rapidly becoming our despair. Our children will have to build something new in the ashes, or die trying. With mass destruction as the tragic limitation of their own condition, they’ll have nothing left to lose – and no reason to submit.
Sarah Grey is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her work on topics including politics, language, food, and labor has appeared in Best Food Writing 2015, Jacobin, Bitch, Saveur, International Socialist Review, Monthly Review, Lucky Peach, and more. She edits and indexes academic, activist, and creative nonfiction (with a specialty in Marxism) for publishers and individuals under the name Grey Editing (greyediting.com) and was awarded the American Copy Editors Society’s 2016 Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copy Editing. She can be reached on Twitter at @greyediting or by email at email@example.com.