Friday, September 1, 2017

Winter is Coming!

The globally popular television show "Game of Thrones", is a sordid and violent tale of palace intrigue, revenge and brutal power struggle between kingdoms, kings, queens and their associates.
"Winter is coming" is an ominous phrase often used in the show, foreshadowing a dooms day coming. The phrase has become common usage among fans of the show, to signify something sinister to come, mostly in good humor.

For those who may have not seen the series, here is a primer. The lush television mega production is based on the vividly imagined fantastic tales by R.R.Martin in a series of books titled "A Song of Fire and Ice". Loosely borrowed from European fiefdoms of medieval times, R.R. Martin concocted a rich and layered fantasy universe filled with ornate palaces, lavish landscapes, flying banners, warring horseback armies, magic, dragons and zombies. The central thread runs around a power struggle between royal families, vying to claim their rightful place on the "Iron Throne", which would allow them to rule over the seven kingdoms which constitutes the whole universe of the story. While the kings and queens war, plot, deceive, murder and squabble among each other, to the north there is an army of the dead that is amassing which is all powerful and dominating and threatens to render all that is living obsolete. The series that just completed its seventh season, has been building to a moment, when the army of the dead would arrive at the giant ice wall, the only obstacle standing between the living and the dead.

So the wise John Snow, one of the main characters, tries to convince the warring kingdoms, that it is pointless fighting among each other as the real threat does not care who sits on the Iron Throne. If they do not put their differences aside and face the real enemy, life as they know it would cease to exist. And so he convenes a meeting of all parties and presents evidence that the army of the dead is real, by capturing one of the zombies. While he manages to convince that the threat is real, not all agree to cooperate. One of the factions chooses to find an island and seclude themselves from the danger and another sees an opportunity in the face of impending catastrophe. The final episode of the season ends with the army of the dead breaching the ice wall as winter begins to descend.

As we watch the fourth largest city in America, succumb to trillions of gallons of water unleashed upon it by a hurricane, and scientists and weather forecasters call it a "once in a 500 year flood" one wonders if this is just a freak of nature or is this a new normal. Is "the winter", climatologists have been predicting as the planet warms is already here.

Houston and its surrounding counties have seen their fair share of floods through the years. Partly because of their geographical location in the gulf of Mexico. In 1994 Montgomery county received 20 to 30 inches of rain and was inundated. This time this suburb of Houston received over 50 inches in a couple of days. A survivor of that 1994 deluge, responded to New York Times about this present calamity saying "this is the most catastrophic thing I've seen in my life".

Scientists have predicted for sometime now, that warming oceans can create intense storms which can pack immense amount of moisture and deliver it to land with devastating fury. One of the most significant and telling effects of global warming are abnormal weather patterns that can wreak havoc on population centers that are ill prepared to handle the increasing scale of the impact. While Huston was flooding and the media was focused on Hurricane Harvey, a third of Bangladesh was under water and Nepal, Mumbai and Karachi were dealing with unseasonal cloudbursts leading to hundreds of deaths. Approximately 16 million people in the region were estimated to have been affected by the floods.

Since the industrial revolution, nations have heated the planet by burning coal and other fossil fuels without refrain. Deforestation and other forms of pollution have rendered vast stretches of the planet lifeless. When science began to conclude with strong evidence the impact human activity was having on the globe, the first response was to doubt it. The worst polluting western nations did not want to stifle their economic growth and the developing nations felt it was their turn to pollute as they had to catch up to the west. After much squabbling over decades like the warring families of "Game of Thrones", 198 nations agreed to the non-binding Paris Climate Accord, acknowledging at least in principle, like the "army of the dead", climate change was real and an existential threat to all things living.

In all their wisdom, respecting the knowledge of almost 99% of the scientists of the world, in 2015, leaders signed onto the Paris Climate Accord. Nations agreed to take action to mitigate rising temperatures by enacting sensible regulations in their native countries. Then in 2017, Donald Trump ascended to the office of the American presidency and decided to go against the accord wowing to pull out. His decision was largely governed by his distrust of the scientific data and belief in climate change deniers. He often called climate change a "hoax" during his campaign rallies. The reason he gave though, was that he thought enacting any policies to curtail global warming would come at a great cost to the American economy and its workers.

As Texans clean up after the storm, an estimated 300,000 people have been directly affected by the storm. Many have lost homes and probably their livelihoods as a result. Petrochemical factories, that employ a large number in the area have been flooded and will take weeks if not months to reopen. As people rebuild, many employers will have to let go of people, not knowing when they would return. The economic impact of such a storm will be hard to gauge and will take its toll for years to come. Donald Trump's lopsided economic theory that acting on climate change might stifle economic growth and cost American jobs, is proven wrong with this catastrophic example. Whether it will be acknowledged, is another matter.

Climate change deniers defy logic. As they propose, if actually the climate is not changing as a result of human activity but is only going through a natural cycle, and that cycle will return back to its normal state in the future, then great, we will all be saved. But if that is not the case, and if humans are in fact contributing to an accelerated change in climate and rising ocean temperatures, then does it not make sense to stop being selfish and opportunistic and actively do something about it?

Climate change is a real security threat. Many sensible governments around the world and the US Military have adopted a serious posture in preparing for it. Just like the army of the dead in "Game of Thrones", it is real and it is not selective and it does not see borders. If the human race as a whole does not join hands in stemming its onslaught, life as we know it will cease to exist in the very near future. Hurricane Harvey is again sounding the alarm. It is for us to decide whether we want to unite or perish. It is what it is.


  1. Super narrative ...from the one and only
    Meister Kamalakar !


  2. Nice post Anand, thank you. I think we've become distanced from the real threat. For most of us it's just another item on an impossibly immense list of concerns. Climate change must be the mother of all issues, our very existence hanging in the balance. Does an individual have control over any of this, or is it better to go with the flow, where ever that make take us? Interesting times...