09/21/2011 05:05 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

It's the Weather, Not the Debt

I am watching our Washington politicians with growing appreciation for their capacity to create politics as a diversionary tactic. Against the backdrop of what is happening in the rest of the country and around the world, their present debate about reducing U.S. debt is like chaff blowing in the face of a rising wind. What is alarming and where our leaders should be focusing their attention is not on bloated budgets, deepening debt, or even the wars in the Middle East, as challenging as they are. The most alarming threat is the escalating number of extreme weather events that are happening all around us. The devastation that is happening in the face of our weather is getting to be staggering, dwarfing the impact of our national debt on our ordinary lives. The extreme weather events are delivering direct and escalating bodily, financial, and social harm to a growing number of our citizens. Consider the following:

Just a few months ago, on April 14, a massive storm swept out of the Rocky Mountains into the Midwest and South, igniting more than 150 tornadoes that killed 43 people across 16 states. It was one of the largest weather catastrophes in U.S. history. Then came an even bigger storm, the 2011 Super Outbreak, that spread more than 300 tornadoes across 14 states from April 25 -- 28, including an all-time one-day record of 188 tornadoes on April 27, killing 339 people. Then came Hurricane Irene in August that ravaged the East Coast and killed 45. Then the Texas drought induced wildfires in September set further records for drought, wildfire damage and economic destruction. Property damage from these events was calculated to be in the tens of billions of dollars, and they were only four of ten multi-billion dollar catastrophes so far in 2011 alone, itself an historic record.

What is even more alarming is that almost every other country in the world can provide similar examples. When you include all the blizzards, floods, earthquakes, heat waves, tsunamis, tornadoes, droughts, wild fires, hurricanes, cyclones and other extreme weather events that have been occurring around the globe, combined with the collapsing resilience of communities to withstand the onslaught, you have a world literally at war with itself.

The real debate that should be calling forth our politicians is the fact that all of a sudden, at the same time, everywhere in the world, humanity is facing a common reality -- radically rising weather turbulence at a scale not seen for a very long time -- and we are all completely unprepared.

This needs to be underscored. The most significant fact about the rising weather turbulence is that it is emerging right at the moment when our governments are stripping down social services at every level of society with the same toxic mix of "deficit reductions" and "emergency financial management" -- all essential, they tell us, for "jobs" and "economic growth." Right at the moment when we urgently need them, most of our social support programs are being seriously eroded, while at the same time cities, states, and nations worldwide teeter on the brink of insolvency. This is what our elites are serving up to us -- a perfect eco-political storm.

This perfect storm will not happen all at once and then be over. We are at the beginning of an escalating cascade of crises, a reality in which month by month, year by year, decade by decade, the weather turbulence will get increasingly severe, our governments increasingly unable to adequately respond, until all around we will experience a fusion of ecological instability and political and economic chaos at levels that will require increasingly radical measures for simple survival.

The major ground for hope as we face this future is the fact that virtually every technical solution we need to stop producing CO2 and transition to a renewable energy economy is here. We could actually deliver ourselves of the incipient catastrophe by simply doing what Lester Brown says will essentially solve the core problem: reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2020 while transitioning to a clean green economy. All the technology exists to do this efficiently, quickly, and relatively easily. All that is necessary is the leadership to mobilize society for what must be done.

An equally important fact is that in virtually every country polled worldwide there is a solid majority that supports stronger efforts to stop global warming and to promote social resilience. This means that we have both the technical solutions and the critical "silent majority" to work with to accomplish what must be done. Right as we enter the perfect storm ahead, both the technical solutions and spiritual values are here to solve the crisis and set the basis for a new era in human history.

The cruel irony of our unfolding tragedy is that nothing keeps us from doing this except our addictive attachment to our present oil dominated reality. We are not in a crisis because we cannot find solutions. We are in a crisis because we are not implementing solutions already here. Our capacity to change rests not in any external reality but in the inferiority of our own minds, shaped by our political debates and priorities.

At some point, either a mass movement might ignite to compel the governments to act or some politician or political coalition might rise up to exercise the requisite leadership, but for right now, dark forces inhabit the corridors of power as President Obama and virtually all other national leaders continue to surrender to the imperatives of the fossil fuel economy, the manipulations of the financial elites, and the demands to strip our nations of their social infrastructures. Without presidential leadership, the U.S. has sunk into the politics of paralysis. Without the U.S. providing direction, the world remains fundamentally adrift.

Recalling Germany in the 1930s, it is as if we have passed the 1939 mark and bombs are beginning to explode. This is a deadly serious comparison. If you consider the destructive impact of the climate turbulence that is taking place all over the globe, communities are literally being attacked as if in a war, and not by other people but by the ecology itself. After everything we have done to her, the Earth is striking back: lives are being lost, property is being destroyed, economies are being devastated, whole societies are being undone, all at an unprecedented scale. So turbulent is the extreme weather gripping our planet that Munich Re says that it has become virtually impossible to predict weather events statistically anymore, and thus it has become practically impossible to calculate for risk.

Climate scientists estimate that upwards of 300,000 people died worldwide in 2010 as a result of extreme weather events, with over 200 million directly affected, and more than $100 billion in damages. Those deaths are roughly the equivalent of the total number of U.S. military deaths in all of World War II -- 291,557. The major difference is that the casualties now are almost all civilian and the vast majority, so far, are in the global south. There are now more water refugees fleeing drought than war refugees escaping conflict. There is not a country anywhere in the world that is not directly engaging with weather turbulence. It is a global phenomenon affecting everyone everywhere.

The fracturing of the Washington Monument in the August 2011 earthquake represents symbolically what has been taking place in the body politic of the nation in the face of this reality. It somehow speaks to the widening gulf between political rhetoric and what is actually affecting people in their daily lives. The Washington Monument stands at the very center of the Washington Mall, at the heart of the nation's Capitol. In a profound sense, it represents the integrity of America's founding vision. That heart, that vision, is now broken. The U.S. is descending into collapse. Even more tragically, there is neither a nation nor a leader anywhere else in the world capable or willing to fuse political rhetoric and an appreciation for actual reality into a vision based program of action to address the most crucial issue of our time. Thus we drift, all of us, into the encroaching storm.