Comment: What will it take to grasp reality of climate change?

A hurricane simulator gives a sense of a storm’s winds but not the devastation left behind

By Ricia Anne Chansky Sancinito / The Washington Post

A friend recently texted me a photo of an arcade “game” she and her son happened upon while taking a break from their back-to-school shopping: Hurricane Simulator.

Its description promises that players can “step inside and get blown away, without the worry of physical danger.” It lets people “feel winds up to 75 mph” while a 42-inch LCD screen shows “animations of physical destruction.” People can experience a storm safe from “the danger of flying debris, rising tides, horizontal rain.” Its promoters promise the simulator is “all for fun,” which equals “a big profit for operators!”

The friend who sent the photo is from Puerto Rico, a survivor of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, which made landfall five years ago this month. As is her son. As am I.

It’s strange for us to imagine the person who wants to step inside a Hurricane Simulator and watch animations of destruction. It’s hard to fathom a communal trauma — one shared by the 3.3 million people who lived in Puerto Rico when Maria struck — functioning as amusement. But I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the game exists – and is a moneymaker.

That a company would package disaster as entertainment makes sense when we think of the widespread efficacy of climate change deniers, who have underplayed the impact corporations have on the environment, largely by divorcing disaster from its very human costs.

The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was described by António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, as a “code red for humanity.” Why is such a declaration, about such an enormous crisis, not enough to impel more people to act?

George Marshall, co-founder of Climate Outreach and author of “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” argues that although the science has long been clear, scholarship isn’t enough to persuade people to take it seriously; because scientific data “does not galvanize our emotional brain into action.”

Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, has suggested it’s difficult to motivate people because many can’t conceive of how climate change will affect their lives. “The question is often ‘Do I feel vulnerable?’ ” he told Time in 2018. “For the most part, we don’t, and that shapes our behavior.”

Seen this way, the Hurricane Simulator is an apt metaphor for the separation between abstract notions about climate disasters and their tangible real-life outcomes. The “game” is a “unique attraction,” a seemingly harmless thrill; so much easier to step inside a box than to confront the true stories of hardship, courage and survival like those I’ve recorded over the past five years. For instance:

Carlos Bonilla Rodríguez, a farmer in San Sebastián, watched from a neighbor’s house as Hurricane Maria peeled back the roof of his home. “When everything was taken by the wind … and I knew we had nothing,” Carlos said, “the only thing to do was cry.” Although this was the second time Carlos’ home had been destroyed — the first was during Hurricane Georges in September 1998 — he received no government aid. As he put it: “not even a nail.”

Belle Marie Torres Velázquez, the only doctor on the island municipality of Culebra, was forced to deliver a premature baby in a supply closet because almost two months after the hurricane, there was still no electricity, and the closet was the only space close enough to hook into a generator. “This baby was coming under very poor conditions; with no access to special equipment, no transportation and no possible communication with an obstetrician,” she recalled, adding: “All those same feelings of desperation are inside me still.”

The Hurricane Simulator isn’t the problem. The game is a symptom and reflection of a larger crisis, built by individuals, corporations and governments that have not faced up to a global emergency caused by human degradation of the environment.

In contested spaces like Puerto Rico, this is an emergency with consequences compounded by existing inequities, systemic racism, colonial practices and predatory maneuvers such as “disaster capitalism,” which enriches private profiteers at the expense of the rest of us.

As Puerto Rico prepares for the height of the 2022 storm season, our recently privatized electric grid frequently crashes, leaving many without power. Thousands of homes haven’t been rebuilt. Medical care is extremely difficult to access. And schools, roads and health-care facilities remain in a state of deterioration. What happens if we find ourselves in the path of another Category 5 hurricane?

This is not a simulation. It’s not a drill. But for the many stakeholders who find climate issues too removed from their own experiences to worry about, or too inconvenient to worry about when there are corporate profit margins to consider, this global crisis will remain merely a game; until it’s far too late for any of us to win.

Ricia Anne Chansky Sancinito is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, a senior climate justice fellow at the Humanities Action Lab and co-editor of “Mi María: Surviving the Storm, Voices From Puerto Rico.”

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