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    Jaws and Climate Denial

    There is no better Fourth of July movie for my money than Jaws. I would watch it at least twice every Independence Day weekend if that wouldn't bore and annoy my spouse. It was designed and filmed so carefully that time has transformed it into a beautifully accurate period piece, capturing the New England beaches of my 1970s childhood in loving detail. Time has also turned it into something else it was not originally meant to be: a parable about the dangers of denying climate change.

    Jaws is the story of a community whose economy depends on its natural resources. That's true of every community and every economy, but in this story it's simple and obvious. The town has a beach. Its entire economy depends upon tourists coming to that beach during the summer. If the summer people don't come, everyone will go hungry. Clear enough.

    Then the natural world throws up a problem; there's a shark in the water, and that shark kills a swimmer. The local police chief wants to close the beaches, but doing that at the height of the tourist season means financial ruin for the townsfolk, the danger that they will, as one character puts it "be on welfare all winter."

    Watching the movie, the right thing to do is obvious. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Closing the beaches would cause real pain for many people. It isn't a cheap or easy solution.

    The town authorities cave and do the wrong thing, trying to wish the shark away. They change the first victim's cause of death to "boating accident." When a second person is killed, they balk at the price of commissioning a serious shark hunt by a professional and instead countenance an amateurish bounty hunt that brings in "a shark, but not the shark." That gives them just enough apparent evidence to dismiss scientific advice and open the beach for Fourth of July weekend.

    Then, as one of my friends likes to say during the shark sequences: nom nom nom nom nom.

    The last act of the movie leaves the island behind to focus on the daring shark-hunters' interpersonal struggles and their fight with the monstrous fish. But the ending of the town's story is clear: they have destroyed their economy, not simply for a few crucial weeks but for the entire summer and probably for years to come. No summer people are coming to an island where three people have been killed. And tourists aren't going to magically forget the shark attacks next summer either. Trying to deny the problem in order to protect the beach economy leaves the beach economy in ruins.

    So it is with us. Our economy depends on exploiting fossil fuels. And burning those fuels has begun to create major problems. Reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy. It will have painful costs, and there is no point in underestimating those costs. Nor is it helpful to expect that people who will bear heavier losses than the rest of us should simply take those losses. It's dysfunctional to let individual create massive social expenses, but it's also dysfunctional to make individuals shoulder massive social expenses themselves.

    But here's the thing: avoiding the necessary economic sacrifice in the short term only makes the price of the eventual economic sacrifice higher. If we don't take the emissions-reduction hit now, we will incur all the costs of a changed climate AND eventually have to reduce our emissions even further. We will hold on to Fourth of July weekend and lose all of our summers. The character talking about "being on welfare all winter" isn't talking about closing the beaches for two weeks. He's talking about the cost of cheaping out and not killing the shark.

    The Jaws parable is playing out in North Carolina right now, where the State Legislature has ordered experts to change a report on how rising sea levels will affect the Outer Banks. (At the same time, Virginia is taking steps to protect its endangered coastline.) North Carolina is afraid that the news of rising sea levels will be bad for the Outer Banks's beach-tourist industry, so (like the Mayor and medical examiner in Jaws), they have had the alarming report amended. The problem for the Outer Banks is that, as they say, This was no boating accident. And waiting until the sea level has already risen too high to ignore means waiting until it may be too late for the Outer Banks to be saved.

    Denying climate risk is like ignoring a debt; it simply gets harder to pay off. I understand why people on the Outer Banks are afraid that their property will lose value if the state projects a thirty-nine-inch rise in the sea level by 2100. But if no steps are taken to deal with the rising sea, property on the Outer Banks will someday lose all its value. You can't sell a hotel to the fish.

    And sooner or later, every climate denialist will have to hear the hardest news of all: "Summer is over. You're the Mayor of Shark City."

    P.S. It has come to my attention since I started this post that the admired Historiann has also recently posted about Jaws, and that she has only recently seen the movie for the first time. Welcome to Amity Island, Historiann. Amity, as you know, means friendship.


    nom nom nom nom nom

    I'm surprised that a man of your letters does not know that the correct spelling is: om nom nom nom.

    I don't speak shark. Sorry.

    Better than me. I couldn't even figure what "nom nom nom" meant.

    I would have gone with duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum.

    Speaking of sharks, how has Quinn resisted the urge to pipe in with a mega-shark reference?

    I was going for a childish noise meant to represent eating. Num num num.

    But you're right: I went the whole post without referencing the famous musical hook for the shark. Should never have left that on the table.

    Ah, but I've got you cornered here, Doc... if global warming were real the New England townsfolk wouldn't have to work all summer to survive the brutal winter because islands of the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts would be tropical.

    You almost had me fooled but two things remain as true after your post as they were before.

    1) Any argument can be turned into a global warming denial argument.

    2) I can't spell Massachusetts without spell check.

    You, sir, are a true scholar of Shark Studies.  You should have popped a link into your comments at my place yesterday!  Thanks for the shout-out.



    It's always been a matter of time before the Outer Banks were obliterated.  They're barrier islands and should never have been populated.  In some places they're nothing more than long strings of land between the ocean and the sound and hurricanes seem to be drawn to them.  Even on a sunny day there is something ominous about their vulnerability.  I suspect there aren't many people living there who don't understand that their existence there is tenuous and temporary.

    Your use of the "Jaws" story as an analogy is a great one.  It serves them to pretend that nothing even off in the near future will hurt them.  That's the way it is when the economy depends on the tourists. 

    It's that way up here where I live, too.  The hard winter and late spring has taken its toll.  Our tourist traffic is way down in a season that is already short.  It runs from around the middle of June, when school lets out, to Labor Day weekend, after which everything stops until the color season, after which everything stops until hunting season, after which everything stops until the following summer, when school lets out.  Yet all of our PR shows year-round wonders for everybody.  (SO not true!)

    Global warming would be good for us, come to think of it, so never mind.


    It's true that the barrier islands we know will one day be gone, and nature will create new ones. They're basically large masses of sand, and when exposed long enough vegetation emerges. It would be impossible to populate them without developers literally molding them into something they were never meant to be. So it only stands to reason that man-made bandages won't stick forever.

    I live on the NC coast - grew up here. Like everywhere else things have changed immensely. My area is just shy of Cape Lookout (hello, Arthur!), considered the "southern" Outer Banks. I've watched town councils and state legislators demolish regulations meant to preserve our islands and protect people - in spite of themselves. As it is and likely always will be ... money talks. Sound side marshes have been filled with dirt and littered with condos, while they're simultaneously renourishing the beach. The latter is the epitome of temporary fixes. And everybody knows it.

    That's the point. In the grand scheme of things barrier islands are spits of land that will be re-swallowed by water. So economies that vastly depend on their beauty, though doomed to fail in the future, have no choice but to reap the benefits today. Attempts to manipulate the fortunetellers are just sad examples of desperation. Is that the same as climate change denial? I don't know.

    When I was living in Las Vegas, there was a dentist office next to the coffee shop I frequented. One afternoon as I left the coffee shop I noted the dentist was using a water hose to hose off the sidewalk in front of his practice and the parking spaces. I mentioned it would be easier to use a broom instead because water in the desert is not something no one should waste. He laughed and said that he'd be long dead before Lake Mead ever ran dry.


    Oddly, two years later when I packed my bags and left the States, Lake Mead was on the verge of running dry, barely passing enough downstream. Seems the dentist had no clue the water in Lake Mead comes from the snow melt in the Rockies and is feed by both the Colorado river and the Green river which comes down from Wyoming. And the last time they had good snow fall was in 1983 ... they actually had to open the spillways on Hoover Dam because there was too much water.


    The new Cosmos series had an interest point about climate and temperature ... they're not the same. Temperature has its daily ups and downs but doesn't determine climate. That's because, climate is a trend based on many other factors besides temperature. So temperature is what you see as local, but climate is driven of many global factors which aren't part of the local environment.


    So I have to say, those who deny climate change do so because they base their opinion on the weather they observe in their local environment, not realizing there are other forces at work hundreds, if not thousands of miles away that's slowly changing the climate. And slow change is hard to move, but once it's moved it's twice as hard to move it back.


    The only problem for climate change deniers is there's only so much land they can move to when the climate changes for the worst.

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