Sandy and Sandy Hook: Connecting the Response

As 2012 ends, the nation is reeling from two moments of unfathomable violence, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and Hurricane Sandy’s assault.

In late October, as the storm filled the New York City subway system with rainwater and swept away entire neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey, a majority in the nation (more than 70%) again showed understanding and alarm about climate change as the systemic cause, and took it seriously as a real and deadly threat.

Just after the storm, President Barack Obama made the first pointed reference to climate change during his re-election campaign and promised to take strong action. Advocates for a national summit had received encouraging response from the White House. A carbon tax had even been mentioned by a few legislators as a budget reform tool.

Then a more immediate horror captured national attention, as twenty seven innocent people were gunned down in a morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. National priorities urgently shifted to violence prevention and the capture of a teachable moment on gun control.

It is hard enough to fight one war. Yet both threats are real and demand action now. How can this combination of challenges be addressed together, as they have come into our lives, in a politically and strategically coherent way? How can climate change be dealt with as an overarching threat to public safety, while we take a stand against human-to-human violence as the watershed issue for our communities right now?

Politically, these are separate issues. They require the leadership of different constituencies, different legislation, different social policies. They call forth different public conversations.

Still, there are similarities in the responses they call forth, socially and culturally. In both domains, we need to face a painful reality, understand the risk it poses, make action a priority even it if involves a fight, and accept that the patterns of our lives may have to change to deal with it. In both domains, we need a concerted grassroots movement in which people help each other to stay involved. In both domains, an obsessed minority has blocked majority action, and a tolerant majority has failed to take the upper hand. On both issues, we need a whole lot of people to reach deep within themselves and access the core values that drive them to action.

Looking at the root causes of the two threats, more similarities emerge.

Climate action requires new approaches to energy, transportation and the built environment - providing drive and opportunity to design the places where we live, and therefore to take a fresh look at the lives we are living. One of the largest sources of carbon pollution is transportation and travel, as people ricochet from home to work to civic and social activities across geographic expanses that our grandparents would never have imagined. People are living their lives in constant movement. As people commute more, they have less time to interact with their neighbors and less need to. In the social isolation that can result, many of us are too fragmented to focus much on a macro-issue like climate change. A major strategy for reducing climate impacts is reconnecting people and commerce in comfortable, small-scale places designed for quality of life, not designed for people to commute out of.

Social isolation also has something to do with violence. Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech and other massacres were all committed by young male loners who lived in constructed worlds of violent social media. All those perpetrators were part of in communities where they were seen but not known, where later their stories would be reconstructed by neighbors who said, “I was concerned but I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t see other people showing concern, so I didn’t say anything.”

The same thing has been happening with climate change -- at times in the extreme. A social taboo on talking about the subject has even been observed in Arctic fishing villages where sea ice is visibly melting and stable wildlife migration patterns are changing for the first time in living memory. Where the effects of climate change are most visible, people don’t want to talk about it. And in mainstream American politics, the swing vote that could support or inhibit action is nearly 1/3 of the adult population that self-describes as disengaged and confused. In order to mount an effective political response, we need to think about the social.

Across the issues, we need to understand the tricks that the human mind plays to hold difficult information at bay. One of these is “confirmation bias” - the tendency not to believe something we see directly, if authorities or our peers contradict it, or even act as though it isn’t important. Our ability to respond to big issues is not just a product of our individual analysis, but our social experience as well. This is why the public so often mobilizes as a mass - and falls back into apathy as a mass as well.

Preventing more Newtowns will take a concerted policy campaign, hard work and public stands by many. It will also take cultural change. It’s about controlling guns and ammunition, and also about reweaving the safety net for traumatized people so that they do not traumatize others. Beyond tactical responses, reducing gun violence is about finding a more compelling form of self-expression, even for very troubled people. Preventing more Newtowns will require countless citizens to help each other stay true to purpose and overcome opposition - opposition that may employ tactics of intimidation or distortion or even violence.

Confronting runaway climate change -- and dealing with its impacts -- will take a concerted campaign as well. That campaign is gathering force. Policies must shift to remove all subsidies from carbon-polluting fossil fuels and support the uptake of clean renewable power sources and transportation systems -- an agenda most Americans easily support. As with the gun issue, we don’t just need a rational majority registering its views, but a passionate, resolute majority that is unwilling to back down. But the work to be done is far more than policy. We need a reinvention of our built environment, of a quality and quantity that has never been seen - solar neighborhoods and downtowns need to pop up everywhere, along with bikeways, trolley systems, and urban farms so that people can live and move around without dependence on fossil fuels. A World War II style mobilization has been suggested by concerned scientists - and roundly rejected by even the concerned public.

Whether the focus is climate change or shootings, it is clear that violence cannot be matched only with violence without worsening the downward spiral. Law, policy and legitimate authority are part of the necessary response, but another part is creativity. In climate action, that has begun. Cities from Copenhagen and Oberlin Ohio are rolling out concrete action plans to become carbon neutral in the next decade. Wind farms are cheaper to construct now than coal plants. New policy tools like property assessed clean energy - in which householders repay energy loans on their tax bills through savings - have been invented by local officials in search of solutions. Truly the metaphor for climate response is not a military mobilization, but a Renaissance - decentralized, experimental, tolerant, drawing equally on art, science and spirit. And such a Renaissance, as it emerges, might well provide the most powerful antidote to social violence - hope.

The Northeast really did not need Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook school massacre, and certainly not in the same season. But in dealing with both tragedies, the region will be invited to tap an unprecented resource, the sense of deep connection among its people and urgency to create a very different reality.