I live in a wealthy country, the U.S., and in a corner of it, a part of Virginia, not yet hit hard by fires or floods or tornados. In fact, until Sunday night, January 2nd, we’d had rather pleasant, almost summerlike weather most of the time since summer. Then, Monday morning, we got several inches of wet, heavy snow.
It’s now Thursday, and trees and branches have been coming down all over the place. We shook branches repeatedly as the snow was first arriving, to get some of it off. We still had a dogwood tree come down in the back yard, and some parts of crepe myrtles on the driveway, and other limbs and branches all around. We shoveled the snow off the house roof and the awnings over the doors as well as we could.
Many houses and businesses around here still have no electricity. Grocery stores have empty shelves. People sat in cars on Interstate-95 for over 24 hours. People are renting hotel rooms, but the hotel staff can’t all get there due to the road conditions. More snow is predicted for tonight.
What happens when the snow is the slightest bit heavier and at night? Our neighbor last week took down a dead tree that would have smashed our house if it had come over in the wrong direction on Monday — a tree that apparently had died because an electricity transformer had not been upgraded since before I was born. What happens when most of the trees around here die? I wrote about that in 2014. What happens when we lose power? heat? a roof?
One thing that happens is that people help each other. Neighbors assist each other more when the need is greater, when some have power and others don’t. People stuck on frozen highways give out food to those around them. At the local level even some minimal organization remains, so that schools and other buildings are turned into aid centers. The need for helping each other is going to grow, of course.
The Piedmont area of Virginia has seen the temperature rise at a rate of 0.53 degrees F per decade. Even if that doesn’t speed up, Virginia will be as hot as South Carolina by 2050 and as northern Florida by 2100, and continuing at a steady or increasing pace from there. Sixty percent of Virginia is forest, and forests cannot evolve or switch over to warmer-weather species at anything like that fast a pace. The most likely future is not pines or palm trees but wasteland. On the way there, dead trees will be dropping on powerlines and buildings.
Between 1948 and 2006 “extreme precipitation events” increased 25% in Virginia. Precipitation in Virginia is likely to increase or decrease dramatically overall, and is extremely likely to continue the trend of arriving in ever more intense bursts of storms interrupting droughts. This will be devastating to agriculture. The warming will bring the mosquito varieties (already arriving) and diseases. Serious risks include malaria, Chagas disease, chikungunya virus, and dengue virus.
This has all long-since been predicted. What I find surprising is how people go out of their way to be kind to each other while the catastrophe plays out. After all, these are the very same Homo sapiens that created this. Every member of the U.S. Congress with its endless weapons buys and fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks for billionaires is a human being. One Virginia senator was stuck in that traffic jam on I-95 and, to all initial appearances, went straight back to slow-motion destruction-as-usual when he’d gotten out of it. Joe 1 in the White House has worn out his knees groveling before Joe 2 on his yacht in the Potomac.
If all you knew about people was what the U.S. government does to increase the likelihood of nuclear apocalypse or climate collapse, or what the U.S. public is fed through its televisions, you’d expect disasters to be exacerbated at the local level by small-scale cruelties. I think you’d mostly be wrong. I think there are going to be countless acts of kindness and heroism in the times ahead of us.