The New Normal

A8D4A9C3-CD3E-451C-9FE0-25955088678D-1921-0000036F52166DC3News footage of the rain-wrapped EF 4 tornado
in Linwood, KS, on May 28, 2019.

AS I WRITE THIS, some recent storms helped make this month the wettest May on record in this area of Kansas. Just a few hundred yards from my desk is a swollen Kansas River—higher than it’s been in decades—and that’s just one of the many rivers, streams, and tributaries throughout the Midwest that have flooded farm land, washed out roads, and inundated homes.

As if the rain wasn’t enough, the storms have been violent, too. Until a few days ago, one of my fantasies upon moving here 12 years ago was to see a tornado in person. Tornadoes have always occupied an awe-inspiring space in my subconscious, spinning in my dreams and influencing my art.

But I came about as close as I ever want to get to experiencing one in waking life when my wife and I watched the local TV news in helpless horror as a mile-wide EF4 tornado tore through the small town of Linwood, Kansas, just 17 miles east of us. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the damage was extensive. The Linwood tornado and several others in the region marked the 12th consecutive day that the National Weather Service verified a tornado touchdown somewhere in the United States. Several more twisters the next day would establish the new record, breaking the record of 11 consecutive days set back in 1980.

These days, the conversation that inevitably follows extraordinary weather is centered on climate change. We ask the experts if this is the proof we’ve been looking for that the computer models and extensive analyses are, in fact, correct—that humans are responsible for speeding up and exacerbating climate change.

I realize that the wettest May on record and 13 straight days of tornadic weather is a woefully insufficient sample size to prove we’re experiencing the acute effects of human-enhanced climate change. Living in Tornado Alley, I know we’ve had weather like this before and that it’s been even more ferocious than what we’ve experienced this month.

But my gut—and most of the respected climate science community—tell me that It’s not so much the ferocity of the weather but the frequency of these events that demonstrate our actions have meddled with the natural processes of our planet. If that’s the case, we’re past the point of hypothetical debate on what human-caused climate change might look like—it’s happening right now. This is the new normal.

It may be hard to see in the moment, but we’re already in the next chapter of this story. Sure, there will be stragglers hanging on to the previous chapter, unwilling to accept that we’re all collectively responsible for the predicament in which we find ourselves. It will be up to the rest of us to remind them and ourselves that no matter how we got here, we’re all collectively responsible for making the decisions that lift us out of this predicament … or at least the ones that help make the most of the situation in the new normal. In that thought, there’s still hope—not that we can prevent climate change, but that we can learn how to survive and thrive.

From the Summer 2019 issue of Utne Reader

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