Sandy blows climate change back onto agenda

Hurricane Sandy makes landfall in the US. Photo copyright EUMETEOSAT 2012

Hurricane Sandy makes landfall in the US. Photo copyright EUMETEOSAT 2012

By Dr Jeffrey Mazo, Managing Editor, Survival; Research Fellow for Environmental Security  and Science Policy

Stuck in my hotel in Washington DC channel-zapping for hours during Hurricane Sandy last week, I was surprised not to hear one mention of global warming in connection with the storm, despite the almost non-stop coverage that pushed even the close-fought presidential election out of the headlines.

Admittedly, this was a limited and idiosyncratic sample of the coverage, and people began blogging and writing about Sandy and global warming quickly enough. And I was in DC for a series of meetings and lectures at IISS-US and SAIS on the consequences of catastrophic climate change. At my (rescheduled) events the question of whether Sandy was a manifestation of climate change came up again and again.

There are two fairly glib answers to this question. One is that no individual weather event can ever be definitely attributed to climate change, even if it is consistent with scientific projections. The second is that since all weather is a manifestation of climate, and the climate is changing, all current weather events are due to climate change. Neither of these arguments tells us anything interesting about Sandy, or about climate change in general.

There are other, more substantive ways of looking at the question, however. One is to look for an overall increase in frequency or severity of similar events over a period of one to three decades, or at theoretical models of weather under changing climatic conditions. The evidence with regard to Atlantic tropical cyclones and hurricanes, for example, is still ambiguous, though it tends to suggest an increase in severity rather than frequency of such events.

Another is to look at the precise and unprecedented conditions that gave rise to this superstorm. One non-climate-related factor was the coincidence of the storm with a full moon, and hence an unusually high tide exacerbating the storm surge. This was reminiscent of the impact of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption two years ago, in which two unlikely and unrelated natural phenomena – the eruption and a particular weather pattern – combined to turn a relatively minor event into a major crisis. But the meteorological conditions that drove the unusual path, severity and duration of Sandy can be logically connected to global warming.

In some respects, the question of such a link is less interesting than what the experience of Sandy tells us about the secondary impacts of future climate change. At least 112 people died after the storm hit the US, and the clean-up bill will come to some $20 billion. But as bad as this news was, the death toll and damage would have been significantly worse without both the long-term investments in infrastructure, disaster response, and the preparations and judicious positioning of resources in the days immediately before the storm hit.

Unlike millions of people in Sandy’s path, I was only mildly inconvenienced by the storm, and my own experience illustrates this resilience in microcosm. A smartphone and the Internet gave me access to the information I needed to adjust my travel plans, from forecasts of Sandy’s path and timing to the disruption to air, rail and bus timetables. Without this information I would at best have been trapped in the wrong city and without power for an extended period.

There have been, of course, instances were planning and preparation proved insufficient, but the overall response was impressive. Whatever the level of preparation, there will always be some possible disaster that will exceed the resulting ability to cope.

But Sandy did not just hit the United States. Several days earlier, it had smashed the Caribbean. The worst hit was Haiti, with at least 52 dead and over 200,000 made homeless. Cuba saw 11 dead and 137,000 homes damaged. There were fatalities in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. While figures are still preliminary, both the overall economic damage and the death toll were similar in the Caribbean nations and North America on a per capita basis, or as a percentage of GDP, despite the presumably greater resilience of the United States.

This may be comparing apples to oranges – Sandy changed in character as it moved north, from a normal category 1 hurricane to a ‘Frankenstorm’. What it does tell us is that no one will be immune from the projected increase in severity and frequency of extreme weather events (not just hurricanes) as the planet continues to warm over the next few decades and beyond. Some countries will be at greater risk than others – China’s coastal cities, for example, are particularly vulnerable – and some will be better able to cope. But everyone will be affected.

In the short-term, Sandy was no surprise; the forecasts of the hurricane’s path and timing in the week before landfall were remarkable accurate, especially given the unprecedented nature of the storm. (It should be noted, however, that the weather satellites that provide critical data for such forecasts are aging, and funding for their replacements has not been approved).

In the longer term, the images of flood waters from the storm surge that struck Manhattan pouring into to the site of the World Trade Center memorial bring to mind Al Gore’s warning in An Inconvenient Truth that global warming could submerge this symbolic site (although he was speaking of mean sea-level rise). As I sat in my Washington DC hotel room watching Sandy’s heavy winds and rain, too, I recalled Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2004 novel Forty Signs of Rain, in which an Atlantic superstorm leads to the flooding of the nation’s capital.

We can expect more Sandys in future – not identical storms, but natural disasters on the same scale. These will be as a result of the global warming that will occur regardless of any national or international action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But perhaps because it happened so close to a presidential election, Sandy will provide the necessary boost to put climate change back on the US political agenda and improve the chances of mitigating it in the longer term.

Either way, Sandy is only a taste of what is to come.

 Dr Jeffrey Mazo is the author of Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it.


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