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Op-Ed: On Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Me

Sometimes lost in the big picture are the personal tragedies that are very much a part of extreme weather

Jeffrey Plaut
Jeffrey Plaut

In the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, wrote “Harvey is the symbol of what climate change impacts look like.” Well, that’s probably so.  But, for me, the face of climate change is the face of my late brother Joshua.  

I saw that face on October 29, 2011, when 19 inches of heavy, wet snow fell from the heavens on parts of New Jersey, landed in the fully canopied trees in front of the Summit house we grew up in, and brought one of those trees down on top of my brother. It’s not supposed to snow in October when the trees are full of leaves. It did.  

By all accounts, Josh’s final reckoning with the effects of climate change were not particularly nuanced. According to my late father, Jonathan, who had been walking into the house with him, Josh screamed “Fuck,” after he was knocked down and pinned under the weight of a fallen tree. He couldn’t move his legs.   

At the hospital, Josh was heavily sedated so his family and friends were left to do the bargaining: He’s a lawyer who can still practice law, “run” marathons in a wheelchair, write about the redemptive pain of suffering – something, anything. 

He hung in there for three weeks, dependent on a respirator to do his breathing. Like several others who were hit by trees and ended up in Morristown Medical Center that day, Josh fought hard and faltered.  

At the end of his life, Joshua Andrew Plaut had a series of heart attacks and died. Our parents and his wife held his hands as life left his body. I got there an hour later and gently kissed him on the forehead to say a final goodbye.  He was 42.   

There are things we can do about climate change. We are just not doing them. As a pollster of nearly 25 years, I know that in my heart and from my polls.  One of our recent Global Strategy Group polls shows that 83 percent of Americans support setting a binding goal for the United States to transition completely from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas and get all of our energy needs from renewable sources like wind and solar by the year 2050.   

Josh’s death was a knockout punch to me. I often go to sleep angry and sad because the storm that killed my brother — like Harvey — was not inevitable.  Angry because the United States is not part of the family of nations addressing this issue. Sad because I have given my life to politics and yet have managed to affect no progress on an issue that taunts me with my brother’s blood.   

As I turned to Sandy, then Harvey, and now Irma, I see a hauntingly familiar pattern of lives cut down by extreme weather. I see my brother Josh.  When will we all learn? Our candidates for governor and Legislature need to pay attention — they can’t do everything, but they can do a lot. The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters seeks a commitment for New Jersey to get all its energy from renewable sources by 2050. That would be a good place to start.   

Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel wrote, “There is much to be done, there is much that can be done.” More families are having to suffer as my family does due to extreme weather. It’s time to get something done on climate change and, I hope, reduce the occurrence of extreme weather. As a pollster and political consultant, I know that can be done in New Jersey and in America. As a brother, I know that would be a fitting farewell to Josh.

Jeffrey Plaut grew up in Summit and lives in Montclair. He is a founding partner of Global Strategy Group LLC.

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