Published: Nov 21, 2012 11:00 AM
Modified: Nov 21, 2012 11:01 AM
I used to think that inside a burning building, everyone would be running around in a panic, clamoring to get out. There would be flames, smoke, and people screaming trying to escape.
I was wrong.
Panic is not the most prevalent behavior in a disaster. After a disaster, we often find victims dead at their desks or in their airplane seats.
Fear sucks away all the energy from the rational brain. It puts us into an altered state: we become slow, passive. We default to our normal routine. We may take the time to sharpen a pencil, or do a computer back-up. We ignore whatever bad is happening. We disbelieve the cry of “Fire!” We hope that it will just go away.
Even in North Carolina, with a long history of dangerous storms, it’s hard to get people to evacuate for an approaching hurricane. They have a hard time believing that anything bad will happen to them.
What happens when we don’t even have the option of evacuating? When it comes to climate change, how can you evacuate a planet?
I have since learned that those who survive disasters are exceptional actors who think through a rehearsed plan, even when overstimulated by alarm hormones. They understand what is possible and have carefully planned how they would react, long before they are in an emergency.
Well, the scientists have told us recently that we have a climate emergency, with a high probability of permanent damage to the planet and its inhabitants.
With planning and careful action, our descendants may find a way to survive in a different world.
But if we do nothing, the odds of human survival drops with every ton of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.
This is an extremely large disaster happening in slow motion. There may even be a point of no return. There is no way of knowing exactly when that point will be, or if we have already passed it.
The scientific community has consensus that climate change is happening. Carbon emissions from human activity are making it worse. Every corner of the planet will feel its effects, and many will not survive.
Most people react to emergencies, under the stress of information overload and over-stimulation, with a conservation of energy. They respond with denial, passivity, violence toward the messenger, groupthink, and need for faith and routine.
The minority who are still able to think clearly and act decisively will have to plan for our escape. They have to learn how to bark orders to get people moving to save themselves.
This is an emergency. We haven’t been able to rehearse this drill. We don’t have people who have lived through climate change, and can tell us from experience what we need to do.
We understand so little, and so much of it is very scary. While also hoping for some guidance from our religious community on how to manage the fear, I am ready and waiting, to hear from our scientist guides on what we need to do to save our only home.
We need to start listening to the men and women in the lab coats and waders that have been trying, for 30 years now, to get our attention.
Sarah K. McIntee lives in Chapel Hill