Let’s start with an obvious point about tornadoes. If the kinds of killer-twister that hit Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20 were threatening Washington, DC, a real solution would have been found long ago.
By “real solution,” we don’t just mean storm-shelters. In view of their demonstrated capacity to inflict astounding levels of devastation, if tornadoes were a threat to DC, the monuments, structures, and houses of Powertown would all be hardened or otherwise protected. Such physical perdurability is indeed a good thing; all through history, advancing civilizations have permanently altered their environment to make it more habitable.
Today we need to make further advances, not just in “tornado alley,” but around the country. After all, according to the federal government’s National Climatic Data Center, the US averages 1253 tornadoes a year. And while tornadoes are indeed most numerous on the Great Plains, Florida actually suffers from more tornadoes than Oklahoma—and every state in the union confronts at least at some risk. So in addition to passive defense, e.g. structurally upgrading buildings, we should also be looking at active measures for tornado mitigation, including interdiction.
Unfortunately, absent an imminent threat to the nation’s capital, the political culture doesn’t seem much interested in combating tornadoes. Moreover, the media culture’s head is elsewhere, too.
Beyond the immediate impact of telegenic tornado news—all that wide-screen devastation—the recent mainstream media narrative mostly took two forms: first, earnest admiration for the heroism and stoicism of Oklahomans; and second, equally earnest application of green ideology for America as a whole.
First, the bravery of the storm victims was indeed something to admire. Even Yankees, not always fond of heartland ways, were charmed. A headline in the Manhattan-based Daily Beast: “Oklahoma Tornado Hero Teacher Anna Canaday: ‘Take Me Instead.’” And in The Washington Post: “The unflagging spirit of Moore, Okla.: ‘It’s about hope.’” That header was coupled with a photo of an American flag amidst the rubble; added the Post, “The shot of red, white and blue flying in a landscape of ashen brown is startling and powerfully defiant, seeming to embody the mettle of the national anthem.”
In the view of acerbic critics, the MSM admiration even risked becoming a kind of cloying sentimentality. Jane McManus, writing for The Columbia Journalism Review was moved to snipe at “Silver linings newscasts”; McManus wondered if news consumers have lost their stomach for bad news, even though, of course, “The truth is sometimes grim. Stories of survival can be difficult and won’t always have a happy ending.” And so that’s why, she suggested, reporters chose to “overweave some narrative of triumph.”
Shifting from sentimental admiration to ideological application, we come to the second media narrative, which is also an overweave of triumph—that is, a triumphant validation of green ideology.
Over the past few years, we might note, the greens have shifted their rhetorical emphasis, moving from the riskily specific claim of “global warming” to the ominously vague notion of “climate change.”
So today, with “climate change” as their mantra, greens are in the invincible position of being able to demonstrate—to their satisfaction, at least—that every kind of weather validates their certitude that the problem is real, and that something drastic has to be done, right now. No weather incident—hot or cold, wet or dry, stormy or balmy—fails to underscore the urgency of the climate crisis.
High-profile weather events, such as the Oklahoma tornado, are natural “hooks” for kneejerk punditry. Bill Nye, the self-declared TV “science guy,” declared on CNN, “You’ve got to figure that if there’s more heat driving the storm then there’s going to be more tornadoes.” We might note the scientific method at work here: “You’ve got to figure.”
Thus the triumph of a pre-determined narrative, not open-minded science: You’ve got to figure.
Nye was in good company, of course—or at least numerous company. On the May 26 “Face the Nation,” CBS News’ Bob Schieffer convened four talking heads to talk about the tornado; of the four, three were explicit in making the climate-change-causes-tornadoes argument, while the fourth was simply quiet.
So these are the two dominant media narratives: sweetly sentimental and greenly ideological. And it’s a safe bet that the green agenda will resonate in the MSM long after reporters have lost interested in heartwarming stories from plucky survivors.
It might prove to be the case that climate change is the greatest threat that humanity faces. Maybe the American people can be persuaded that the changing climate is a more urgent problem than terrorism, or poverty, or joblessness. Maybe, also, the Chinese and Indians can be persuaded to forgo economic growth by reducing their carbon footprints. And even poorer peoples, too.
Yet even so, it still couldn’t hurt to give some consideration to shorter-term threats, such as people being killed, and places being wrecked, by tornadoes.
That is, whatever the future of climate-change efforts, we could have a dynamic, science-based discussion about reducing the lethality of tornadoes.
In fact, technology has already made an enormous life-saving contribution. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the trend over the last century is that tornadoes today are vastly more survivable than they were in the past.
A big factor has been better and earlier warning systems. As The New York Times reported, the National Weather Service predicted, a full five days ahead, that May 20 would be a day of “highest tornado potential.” Indeed, on the day the twister hit, the Weather Service was fully mobilized:
By early Monday morning, the “warning coordination meteorologist” for the local forecast office of the National Weather Service, Rick Smith, could not shake a bad feeling about the day. After checking the latest worrisome data, he sent an e-mail at 8:06 to 380 government, hospital and emergency-management officials in the region, signaling the strong likelihood of tornadoes in the early afternoon, right around dismissal time at the schools.
And as The Los Angeles Times noted, hazardous weather is such a big concern to Oklahomans that weathermen become local heroes.
Such high weather awareness helps explain how the Moore tornado, an EF5, blazing across the prairie at 210 miles per hour, could destroy 12,000 homes and yet, miraculously, kill “only” 24 people. But of course, the relatively small death toll was no miracle; it was good science, and good training, in action.
Still, in addition to the death toll, the carnage was considerable: 377 people were injured.
While adequate warning is one important issue, adequate protection is another. And on that score, we can see room for improvement. The red soil of Oklahoma, including its high water tables, has traditionally not been conducive to basements in buildings—basements that can double, of course, as storm shelters.
Yet as NPR noted, that bias against basements is today something of a cultural residue—because it’s not that hard to carve out safe space below ground level. So it would seem that, at a minimum, more could be done to retrofit public buildings, such as schools—seven children died at ground level at the Plaza Towers elementary school—to make them more sheltering. Perhaps, in the tradition of civil engineering and civil defense, there could even be a positive role for government in promoting public safety.
But if we could pretend for a moment that tornadoes were threatening Washington, DC, and not some place in flyover country, we could then start thinking about next steps, beyond warning and basement-building.
We could, and would, think about actually stopping tornadoes. Ideas for stopping tornadoes are, in fact, abundant. Yet in the wake of this deadly tornado, the media will offer little, if any, discussion of such ideas. Why not? Why this lack of interest?
Perhaps it’s because, as we have seen, media bandwidth has been allocated to narratives of sweet sentimentalizing and green ideologizing. Either the storm proves the moral worth of Sooners, or else it proves the need for action on climate change. But that seems to be all. In other words, new action to stop tornadoes from killing is sort of beside the point; it’s certainly outside of the twin narrative.
But just a minute, some might protest. Do we know that stopping tornadoes is even possible? And the answer is no, we don’t know.
Yet in more forward-looking, more pro-science times, the very lack of an answer would be an inspiration to positive action. That’s how we gained all the great public works of times past; that’s how we gained valuable public goods, too, such as the polio vaccine.
By contrast, today, we suffer from a kind of intellectual passivity about the potential—and even the worth—of collective “big science” projects. This passivity explains why we’re not going to space anymore, why we don’t have missile defense, and probably also why we don’t have a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. The media and political culture have simply lost interest in demanding those sorts of solutions. And in the absence of demand, the supply has withered. Instead, as we have seen, we get ever more intense media treatment of more favored narratives.
Some, to be sure, will be skeptical that any such tornado-thwarting is possible, even if the culture were supportive of direct problem-solving. For them, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws of Science” are worth remembering:
1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Those last words are the key words—indistinguishable from magic. That is, new technology will always confound the conventional wisdom. Such confounding is the nature of scientific revolutions, and it would help if the media, the great collective maker of conventional wisdom, could make room for that reality. That is, if the media could add a third narrative idea—the idea that we can apply science to solve deadly problems, even in the short run.
And of course, if Tornado Alley ever moved east, all the way to Washington, the danger would be addressed in one quick hurry.
James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.