Will Sandy Be Short For Cassandra, Another Warning We Ignore?

A key point of my book, Language Intelligence, is that the figures of speech are powerful because they are so memorable. The great Bards like Homer developed tricks to remember epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks codified these memory tricks — metaphor, irony, various forms of repetition, and so on — into rhetoric.

On the PBS News Hour last week, I pointed out that many people had warned climate change would inevitably lead to a storm surge that flooded Manhattan. Ray Suarez then asked if people could hear that message and act on it before seeing the devastation with their own eyes. I used a favorite metaphor:

People warned [before] Katrina that New Orleans needed to be able to withstand a Category 5. They didn’t design the levees to withstand it and we see what happened. Now we see the same thing with Sandy. I think the hope has to be that Sandy isn’t short for Cassandra and that it’s another warning that we ignore.

People now have seen that you can in fact have the worst-case scenario, which was a flooding of Lower Manhattan.

And I think any city along the Eastern Seaboard has to ask themselves, what would happen if Hurricane Sandy hit us?

Cassandra famously had the gift of prophecy together with the curse of not being believed, with archetypally tragic results:

While Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy (she warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise), she was unable to do anything to forestall these tragedies since they did not believe her.

It has become a classic metaphor in the climate arena (though sometimes misused — see “Memo to WashPost, George Will: Cassandra was right“). Indeed, to extend the metaphor, carbon dioxide is the army of destruction hiding in the “gift” of fossil fuels.

Sandy/Cassandra utilizes multiple figures — a metaphor, an allusion, and repetition — which is no doubt why PBS picked it up for its own headline on the story:

Is Sandy a ‘Cassandra’? How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters

Watch the segment:

Watch How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

I should note that the Sandy/Cassandra meme started with a piece in the Nation by the great writer Mark Hertsgaard , “Hurricane Sandy as Greek Tragedy“:

Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy….  That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.

And so it has been with America’s response to climate change. For more than twenty years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather—summers like that of 2012, when the United States endured the hottest July on record and the worst drought in fifty years, mega-storms like the one now punishing the East Coast….

But scientists’ warnings have been by and large ignored—at least within the corridors of power in Washington. As in the myth of Cassandra, today it remains unclear whether even the latest catastrophe—the devastation of America’s greatest city, its center of commerce, finance and, tellingly, the news media—will cause the nation to wake up and take serious action.

There is one particular group of people who understand the need to ‘wake up’ but who have fallen asleep themselves — see my February 2009 post, Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

It’s time for this Administration to wake up.

For more on headline writing, the figures of speech, and being memorable, you can buy Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga in paperback here, Kindle here.

34 Responses to Will Sandy Be Short For Cassandra, Another Warning We Ignore?

  1. Dickensian American says:

    I understand the linguistic connections and the turns of phrase that bring us to the question “Is Sandy a Cassandra?”

    But I take umbrage at the overall framing. In large part because for some time now I have privately identified with Cassandra. The literary figure is a human one, an archetype for any of us that feel the deep psychic and perhaps even cosmic pain of helplessness due to social status in the face of imminent disaster.

    I am certain that I am not alone in my identification with Cassandra. And I don’t know why, but knowing there is an archetype passed down from antiquity that I can identify with serves as a balm in the darker hours.

    Sandy was a storm. As other commenters pointed out in other posts about Sandy, Sandy was not caused by climate change, she is climate change in the same way that a second comprises an hour and a penny a dollar. Sandy is a sliver of the devil that haunts me every day. Sandy is what makes me a Cassandra.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    One key will be managing the medium term public reaction to Sandy. A few years after Katrina, media lap dogs jumped all over both Gore and the prediction that global warming would cause extreme weather. Media companies were overwhelmed with disinformation from the likes of Pielke Jr, in addition to everyday pressure from advertisers.

    Joe and McKibben have been relentless, but not many others. Big Green has been AWOL. This is a long game, and it will take effort and infrastructure serious enough to counter what we can expect from the likes of Peabody and Koch. Joe, I hope you are engaging in strategy sessions on this subject, and trying to pull disparate resources together. Climate Progress is great, but we need concerted and broad based effort here.

  3. Richard L says:

    Joe, I compliment you on your interview – I thought you were very clear and effective, and I appreciated the way you brought the conversation back to carbon pollution towards the mid/end.

    One added thought: I am an educated person, but not so much in literature. I figured there was a story behind Cassandra, but I didn’t know what it was. I am glad more stories are clarifying. For folks like me and those who are even further from greek literature, there may be an explanation of the reference needed to make the message more clear, or perhaps a metaphor to something known to the public more than greek literature. Thanks for all you do. R

  4. Good post and a GREAT book Joe :-)

  5. Dickensian American says:

    For what it’s worth, 12 Monkeys is something of a retelling of the Cassandra myth à la Terry Gilliam, with James Cole as the Cassandra figure.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Though i think it would be wise to focus more on the worst case scenario’s when assessing climate impacts.

    To my understanding Sandy is not the worst case. For instance, worst cases include a much more pronounced feedback from the Geosphere and ofc methane, permafrost and the new “normal” Albedo lose from less Arctic Sea Ice. To put these changes in perspective will help to mount a much more informed decision making process.

    The new normal is today that we will get more Sandy’s (East Coast), more Kathrina’s (GOM Area) and the HEartland will experience more Drought’s (Dust Bowlification) and Deluge kind of events, Derecho’s, Joplin Tornadoe outbreaks which all contributes to a general economic slowdown.

    And on top of these short lived intense, extreme’s we have stuff like Deseases which are driven by the changes in climate or shifting food chain’s (i.e. think of Bark Beetle invasion’s) – more unpredictabilities.

    And in this sense of the setiment fromt he AEI spokes person, we have a hall lot to learn.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    No, that’s not the worst case scenario at all.

    If 170 mph Hurricane Andrew had hit a few dozen miles north, and at a full moon tide, first it would have torn down buildings that weren’t built to withstand that kind of pounding. Second, it would have sent a wall of water way inland. All of lower Florida is near sea level.

    The place where a category 2 Hurricane Katrina put up a 38 foot wall of water was the same place where Hurricane Camille came ashore with 200 mile an hour winds.

    Sandy is just a warning that genuine big hurricanes such as 200 mph Katrina, 200 mph Rita, 200 mph Wilma and 170 mph Andrew are potentially out there, and they can pop up in a week. Now let’s all forget about it and enjoy blizzard season, then tornado season.

  8. David says:

    “There is no greater impotence in all the world like knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.”
    ― Norman Mailer

  9. MarkfromLexington says:

    Jon Stewart said something like this the other night –

    “We’ve seen it is pretty easy to ignore the reality of climate change – until that reality is up to your armpits.”

    Hurricane Sandy woke up a lot of folks.

    Congressman Ed Markey held an Emergency Climate Change meeting in Arlington, MA this morning – with only 24 hours notice the Town Hall was packed – standing room only.

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Storm victims face housing crisis as cold snap hits

    (Reuters) – A housing crisis loomed in New York City as victims of superstorm Sandy struggled without heat in near-freezing temperatures on Sunday and nearly 1 million people in neighboring New Jersey remained without power.

  11. Lore says:

    I’m not without sympathy for these victims of the storm, but they had more than a weeks notice that this was coming. It goes to show just how unprepared, or willing to be ready for any type of calamity and hardship that comes our way in this modern society.

    Ignorance and denial is a terrible thing. That and a growing majority of people use to their fast food and Starbucks in the morning and just think, we’ve only just begun to feel the affects of AGW.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    Possibly the most stunning images after what we saw with the Kathrina coverage. And these images should serve us as a warning sign of what is to come, what we will experience on a global scale, when we do not start with immediate stop of fossil fuel burning and lowering of Co2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

  13. prokaryotes says:

    Sandy a galvanizing moment for climate change?
    Hurricane Sandy images and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama based on his climate change policies could bring attention to the issue of global warming, political observers say.,0,234626.story

  14. prokaryotes says:

    The combination of Hurricane Sandy and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he was endorsing President Obama largely because of Obama’s actions on global warming could do the same thing for climate change, say scientists and political observers.

    “This may be that sort of Cuyahoga River moment for climate change,” said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and Penn State University professor. “It has galvanized attention to this issue and the role that climate change may be playing with regard to the intensification of extreme weather.”

  15. Paul Magnus says:

    Great interview Joe….

  16. Mike Roddy says:

    To me the worst scenario is a human population that lingers for centuries, but has undergone devolution, as violent warlords fight over dwindling resources. By then, they won’t care about waterfront real estate values. It will be a game of survival.

  17. “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson.

    Sandy was at least that, but who is making new plans? Will we rebuild the Jersey Shore like it was… or will some people / businesses lose their places on the beach?

    And while we move millions of gallons of gas to fuel those who have an emergency, when do we start down an alternative road?

    While millions were suffering on the East Coast, a million more turned out on the streets of San Francisco to celebrate the Giants World Series win… and no one even thought about what happened back there. It was another world that had no impact on how people chose to live their lives. Wish that they had all given just 1$ for Sandy’s victims, but it was not even talked about by local media.

    Excuse me for being pessimistic.

  18. john c. wilson says:

    How shall we prepare for the next one?

    Sandy came 14 months after Irene. Shall we begin a 3 year planning process for seawalls and artificial barrier islands and so forth? We could build out the plan over twenty years. Then pat ourselves on the back because we had the foresight to prepare for 2100.

    Before the plans are complete there will be another storm. And another. They will be big and they will be destructive. Count on it. Plan for that, not some fantasy to save the status quo ante. The world has changed. The past is gone.

  19. “For more than twenty years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather—summers like that of 2012.…”

    Well, kinda. One of the problems is that the same stupid question — “is this or that event caused by global warming” — keeps getting asked and scientists, or at least most scientists keep giving the same equivocating answer — “well, sorta maybe one percent could be attributable to global warming but you can never be sure — blah, blah, blah.” While true from one type of scientific perspective, that information is basically useless to the public. Why would you want to give up your car because some roll of the dice increases the chances of a big storm in twenty years?

    Witness Hoerling and Andrew Freedman’s confusing and (in Hoerling’s case) almost dismissive testimony about how much Sandy was caused or influenced by climate change. (Much as I love Freedman’s work in general.) So with the exception of Hansen, Joe and a few other folks, the over-specialized, refuse-to-connect-any-dots, refuse-to-discern-any-patterns, play-it-safe commentary from the scientific community is basically useless in terms of formulating policy — especially policy that requires changes in the status quo.

    Meanwhile, Bloomberg said what anybody with half a brain is actually thinking — “We’ve had two ‘storms of the century’ in the last two years.” And, “It’s Climate Change, Stupid!”

    Yes! The drought, the derecho, the French heat wave, the Russian heat wave, the Joplin tornado, the various monsoon events, Arctic amplification, the Arctic ice melt, the rising tides, are all part of a PATTERN that can and has been predicted and associated with climate-change since the Keeling curve was plotted.

    Until scientists as a group stand up and point to the PATTERN as the defining “event,” policy will remain muddled, at best.

  20. Paul Magnus says:

    6˚ of Global Warming Separation!

    So I was thinking about this earlier. When does an extreme event becomes relevant on a personal scale?

    This is six degrees of separation chart sums it up…. only it seems 2 degrees often does the trick.

    When you are are directly affected by catastrophe there is absolutely no appetite for risk taking…. lose you house and its Climate Change.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘Big Green’ environmental organisations have mostly sold out, to the money power, in order not to be starved of attention by the Rightwing MSM, and to curry favour with totally suborned politicians.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One hundred years ago, maybe. However, the technology of mass murder has moved on, and thermo-nuclear, biological and chemical weapons guarantee a pretty clean job, and the definitive end of the Anthropocene mass extinction episode.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It didn’t wake up the Right in Australia. Led, as ever, by the Murdoch pathocracy, and its flag-ship, ‘The Australian’ in particular, they have greeted Sandy with even more than usually febrile screeching, denying and accusations of ‘warmist conspiracies’. Sandy was a tiny, inconsequential, storm, that caused minimal damage in comparison with the ‘great storms’ of the past, if you believe.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Move well inland, for a start.

  25. “Sandy was not caused by climate change, she is climate change in the same way that a second comprises an hour and a penny a dollar.”

    Very nice. That figure of speech is called synecdoche.

  26. Most people will call that an extreme scenario, but it’s completely plausible. Complex systems fail in complex ways. The weather, driven by the disappearance of the ice cap in just a few years from now, could become so unpredictable and extreme that large-scale agriculture fails. Trade will follow, as will the world economy that’s predicated on it. Investments in technology will shrivel. Maintenance of all our tech stuff will degrade severely.

    At the very least, democracy could fail

    The failed economy will drastically reduce standard of living for all. Even the Koch brothers. Compounded with severe food shortages, it could be Biblical in scale–Haiti or Somalia all over the world. Blame will abound, and offenses against God invoked. Demagogues, enraged, and enraging the population, could marshal the last of a country’s wealth and technological capacity to attack those whom it blames–outside or inside the country. This is what happened with the Mayans, as Jared Diamond recounts.

  27. Brian R Smith says:

    You have my vote Mike. “This is a long game and it will take effort and infrastructure serious enough to counter what we can expect from the likes of Peabody and Koch.”

    The value of the Sandy-as-Cassandra metaphor will be realized if science and climate advocacy leaders, the actual Cassandras here, go for unity and mobilize in every way possible to counter the detractors and frame the terms of the Natl. conversation. This would wake up the Administration; passive acceptance of climate’s confused, underdog position in media coverage will not. Are we the leaders we’ve been looking for or not? Is this a battle for attention that requires a lot more planning, collaboration, coordination and money and on-air guts than currently recognized?

    Joe, my suggestion on this would be to invite posts from climate leaders addressing what more can be done in terms of collaboration and what the barriers are, especially in terms of media strategy. I think spotlighting these concerns will lead to clearer thoughts and game winning solutions for waking up the Administration and the public at the same time.

  28. Brian R Smith says:

    ..further to this, Philip Wenz’s #17 comment below: “Until scientists as a group stand up and point to the PATTERN as the defining “event,” policy will remain muddled, at best.”

    Clarity & consensus on the science in the public mind is a precondition for policy action. If American scientists are key to delivering reality to the public, and are aware of the importance of this to moving policy forward, but perhaps are out of their league in the slaughterhouse of national PR campaigning even though they feel a core responsibility… then it’s pretty obvious that their allies in environment, government, business & communities are the leaders capable of creating and executing events that gives science a serious platform to make its case. Climate science has a lot of levers that could (help) move the world. It needs a place to stand.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The scenario you paint is what I expect to happen. A truly wonderfully complex system, late capitalism, that has changed the planet and human society beyond imagination, is crumbling under the weight of its internal contradictions. Endless growth destroys biospheric integrity. Ever growing inequality throttles demand, produces mountains of private debt and an increasingly disenchanted and angry populace (ie Greece, Spain etc). Elite greed, being insatiable, leads to ever more heinous financial kleptomania. Peak oil ensures ever-growing hydrocarbon costs, in a global economy (including agriculture) based on cheap hydrocarbons. There are scores of these fissures rapidly opening up, and none are getting better. The pace of collapse must accelerate as these act on one another and the whole with dreadful synergism.
    So the elites have two choices, as I see it. The ‘Send in the Marines’ gambit to police a fractious and desperate planet by military force, mostly to keep the ‘useless eaters’ trapped in the global mega-slums where they can wipe each other out, and not threaten the ‘Shining City on a Hill’ of the Western world. Or engineer a Malthusian solution, probably through biowarfare. I do not doubt for an instant that Western political elites are capable of such action.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Hoerling (‘Hurling’ is a colourful local euphemism for violent, alcohol-induced, vomiting)became an instant favourite at Murdoch’s ‘The Australian’.