I Can’t Swim: Reflections on the Need for Climate Action

(Published originally on RAC.org.)

When I was eight years old, at a swim club with my family, a friend of my brother’s thought it would be funny to toss me in the pool. I couldn’t swim. Panic ensued as I tried to paddle my way to the wall, all the while with my nose and mouth dipping below the surface of the water. When I was nine, my mother took me for swim lessons. I hated it. I hated the smell of the chlorine. I hated how the Polyester bathing suit felt against my skin. I hated the chill I felt before I actually got in the pool and I hated the viscosity of the water once I immmyself. I learned various technical skills, but I didn’t learn to swim with any proficiency. And while I spent my summers as a child at the beach, my ocean skills weren’t much better, having been knocked down by a wave more than once, gulping enough salt water to raise my blood pressure.

For 18 years or so, I have been writing, speaking and teaching about the threat of climate change – the crisis formerly known as global warming. It’s always been a hard sell because a) nobody wants to hear about doomsday scenarios b) to do anything about it; that is, to reduce our energy use, requires change, which is hard and c) it seems totally disconnected to our “developed” country lives – it’s someone else’s problem. For many years it has been a problem for more vulnerable populations – the poor, indigenous populations and people living on small island nations. Well, guess what? My fellow New Yorkers and I live on an island too! And for anyone who rides the Lexington Avenue subway trains, you know that all it takes is a heavy rain to cause the East River to surge and flood the FDR, and cause delays on the 4, 5, and 6ersed  trains. The idea of flooding in the subways began to get some serious public attention during the threat of Hurricane Irene this past summer.

During Irene the storm surge was 3.6.  According to Columbia University professor Klaus Jacob, one of the nation’s foremost experts on transit and climate change, “Had it been not 3.6 feet but 4.6, we would have been in deep trouble.” In other words, one foot of a difference.

According to the article “For Transit Agencies, Climate Change Can Cost Billions,”  “What the city dodged was the ghost of climate change future — higher sea levels, intense storms, and elevated amounts of precipitation, all of which could combine to cause widespread flooding of the subway system.”

The transit infrastructure measures needed to be taken to protect us from catastrophic destruction could cost New York’s MTA as much as $15 billion. The MTA is already $10 billion short in funding its current capital campaign. The longterm fix would be to spend this money instead on investing in and producing more sustainable energy and  in offering more incentives and alternatives to help reduce the amount of human-made greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. But with limited available funds, neither may be feasible. The money aside, Americans typically only act after disaster has struck. We’re on a fast track and stopping to take preventive actions would slow us down; many also believe that being forced to make lifestyle changes to lower our carbon footprint would be infringing on our right to use an abundance of energy as we please. Let’s consider, though, that 5.2 million people ride the NYC subway a day. As stated in the article, a halted subway would almost halt the city’s economy, which, Jacob says produces $4 billion a day in economic activity. Our only hope may be that the almighty dollar will be enough of a wake-up call for us to begin taking action.

With this threat looming, I’ve thought that maybe I should once again look into swim lessons, but under these circumstances, even knowing how to keep our heads above water, won’t help much.