Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
When the winds of a storm in the Atlantic Ocean reach a certain speed – 39 mph – that storm is given a human name from a list created by the World Meteorological Organization.
This act of naming is no accident. “In general, humans care about other humans, so when we humanize something inanimate, it makes us care about the thing more,” Adam Waytz, a professor at Northwestern University, told National Geographic recently. “Naming things can make them more memorable, easier to recall, and certainly it makes things feel more fluent or easy to process. Given that work shows that easily processed information takes on outsized importance in our minds, it is likely that naming things can give them importance as well.”
No longer, though, thanks to 2020. This is only the second year the World Meteorological Organization has run out of human names – the Andrews, Marias and Sandys that haunt the communities they attack, for decades – for storms in the Atlantic. (The other time this happened was 2005, which saw Katrina, Rita and other monster storms.)
The backup protocol, in the event that an alphabetical list of 21 human names is exhausted, is to dip into the less accessible Greek alphabet. Witness the 2020 storms that were named Alpha and Beta, and so on.
I bring this up not only because it’s a very 2020 occurrence to run out of hurricane names. This year seems to have been all the things, almost none of them pleasant. I bring it up because unnatural disasters like these Atlantic storms, which we know are supercharged by global warming, are becoming so frequent and so dangerous that they almost have a numbing effect on our collective psyche – the opposite of the intended effect of naming storms in the first place. Rather than Arthur, we have Alpha, which feels detached in a high-school-physics kind of way. We’re at the point where even storm names are becoming alphabet soup.
The fires in Western mountains, the violent windstorms in Iowa cornfields, the storms in the Atlantic. All of these disastrous events once were scarce enough that we typically could keep track of them – at the very least, their names, if not their locations and on-the-ground consequences. How many among us – putting aside those most intimately affected – can name the myriad wildfires burning in California, Oregon and Washington? Perhaps naming those fires for humans, rather than locations, would help. But I fear that as we become increasingly trapped in a revolving door of climate-related disasters, we’ll become numb – more numb than we already are – to the magnitude of what’s actually happening.
This fear is a feeling that – as my years of reporting on climate and climate disasters have shown me – many around the world share, even if they don’t have the exact words to express it. Maybe that’s you. Or maybe you’re too tired or worried or just so overwhelmed these days that it only occurs to you late at night, when the kids are asleep or you’re alone and there’s no one to talk to.
Or maybe your thoughts about climate disaster may not be exactly welcome among friends or family where you live. That’s one reason I’m inviting you to send your questions about the climate crisis over coming weeks. I’ll do some reporting and answer them to the best of my ability. Let’s name this thing. Talk about it. Make sense of it.
The climate emergency is too big for just one conversation, so we’re going to have an ongoing back-and-forth throughout the fall. I’ll answer your questions on a variety of themes concerning the climate crisis, from politics to history. Let’s start, though, with 2020, this year of extreme weather — fires, droughts, storms, floods and more. What do you want to know about extreme weather’s relationship to the climate crisis, or what can be done about it?
Later this fall, we will go on to address climate change’s increasingly tangled and thorny relationship with migration; the history of global warming politics; sea-level rise on the American coasts; and solutions to this often-overlooked planetary emergency.
The truth is, we don’t have to be paralyzed by the magnitude of this crisis. There are workable solutions – we’re just not pursuing them, or not doing so anywhere near the economy-shifting scale (or the planet-saving speed) that the science of global warming requires.
Another reason to hear from you is that far too few of us are engaging in this conversation at all. A recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that only a third of Americans talk “at least occasionally” about the climate crisis. Even fewer – a quarter – hear about it once a week in the media. I have a feeling that many of those of us who are trying to engage are yelling past each other as frequently as we’re actually having a conversation. So to all of us, even if it’s hard – let’s have a dialogue, starting now.
I look forward to your questions and to talking more with you about all things climate.