The Connection That Can’t Be Ignored: Sandy and Climate Change

If there’s any good news to come out of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, it’s that political leaders and the press are actually talking about climate change. At the end of a long campaign season with barely a mention of the issue, it’s a relief to hear some sane discussion of the issue based on the premise that global warming is real.

While climate scientists hesitate to attribute any single weather event to global warming, many agree that elevated temperatures and sea levels conspired to make this storm especially damaging. And the frequency of storms like Sandy, they warn, will only escalate as global temperatures rise.

We’ve collected, below, some of the most notable statements about the connection between Sandy and climate change, and what it means for the future:

  • Bloomberg Businessweek made the scene of a flooded NYC street its cover, carrying the news that global insurers are beginning to warn about the connection between climate change and extreme weather events. A Germany-based insurer reported that the number of weather-related loss events in North America has nearly quintupled over the past three decades.
  • The Center for American Progress reports that the United States experienced a record 14 extreme weather events that caused more than $1 billion in damage and there have been seven so far this year. Only five states were spared damage.
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wasn’t mincing words on the topic. “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” he said Wednesday during a helicopter tour of the damage. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable. There’s only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime, and it’s not going to happen again.'”

  • Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg of New York may have been inspired by Sandy in his announcement today that he’s endorsing President Obama for reelection. He titled his press release, “Vote for a president who will lead on climate change.” He continued: “In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods – something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable. Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
  • Ezra Klein at the Washington Post reports that weather related fatalities are on the rise in the United States. The worst weather-related disasters in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in about 800 deaths annually. Compare that to 2005 — the year Hurricane Katrina struck — when 1,400 deaths were attributable to extreme weather. Last year, there were nearly 1,100 such deaths, he reports.
  • Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times wonders if Sandy will awaken the press corps to the dangers posed by climate change. He reports that a Times analysis found that three of the ten biggest floods in lower Manhattan since 1900 occurred in the last three years.
  • John Gapper writes in the Financial Times that New York City “is one of the most civilised, least dangerous of US cities – except for a change in the climate.” What was only recently a gritty, seedy town has been spruced up and gentrified, Gapper says, but with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, it’s failing at any city’s central task: protecting its inhabitants from the ravages of nature.
  • Wen Stephenson writes in the Boston Phoenix that the media have endangered Americans by treating global warming as “as just another special interest, something only environmentalists care about.” Only through the broad-based grassroots efforts of the American public can the fossil-fuel industry’s hold on American politics be broken, he said. But the media is not helping. “Business-as-usual, politics-as-usual, and journalism-as-usual are failing us when it comes to addressing the climate threat,” he writes.
  • Author and environmentalist Bill McKibbon wrote in the New York Daily News that hurricanes, rather than being named after people, should be named after oil companies, so directly are these entities responsible for the devastation that has resulted. His 350.org group is circulating a petition asking oil companies to suspend lobbying activities in the wake of the disaster and instead give the money to relief efforts.
  • McKibben also points to a 2011 study published in Nature Climate Change that found that 100-year storm surges could hit New York as often as every three years by 2100, if atmospheric conditions continue on their current trends.
  • Meanwhile, a reporter at Fox News blames warming trends on “Mars wobbles.”

That’s just a sample of what’s being said. If you have some favorites we’ve overlooked, please let us know in the comments.

  • … or we could see what scientists (rather than politicians and journalists) have to say. For example, in this morning’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/science/earth/scientists-unsure-if-climate-change-is-to-blame-for-hurricane-sandy.html?ref=nyregion

    … which says that most of the folks you quoted above don’t really know what they’re talking about. For those who don’t read the article, the general gist of it is that storms like Sandy are so rare that scientists don’t have enough data to make the conclusions that the Governor, Mayor and other renowned thinkers have already agreed upon. Since climate scientists are ready to blame almost anything on global warming, I’m inclined to listen to them when they say “we don’t know enough”.

  • I would like to think that after the drought this summer and frankenstorm Sandy people would begin to see the risk in irreversibly altering our climate.  However, because taking action might require a small amount of money and effort, it’s likely most Americans will still turn their heads away from the indisputable evidence that adding CO2 and methane to our atmosphere is changing our weather patterns, heating our oceans and shrinking the ice in the Arctic. The problem is, of course, if we “wait and see” too long (two, three, four more years?) while continuing to spew carbon as usual, the methane in Arctic permafrost will melt and we will have passed the point of no return.

    In the Bible it took 10 plagues for the Pharaoh to change his mind. That leaves 8 to go. Will they happen in time, while we still have a chance to avoid the worst? Is the average American more stubborn than a Pharaoh? I guess we’ll see.

  • KillMoto

    @facebook-1054474092:disqus This was indeed complex.  A big storm hits dead-on at NYC, right at high tide.  Call it a freak, or a complex mystery. 

    Call it a freak or a complex mystery at your peril.  Sea levels are rising.  Sea levels are measured in thousands of locations, many times a day, day-over-day for hundreds of years.  They are rising, and it’s possibly climate change, possibly the Will of God, possibly just the inevitable rise that occurs when you dump tons of trash in the sea (cough).  But it’s rising. 

    So, take a constantly rising sea, add in storms that might hit at high tide, might hit at low, and damn – you get flooding. 

    Wait long enough, sitting on your hands, and the s#it will flood anyway.  Scroll up to where I said “sea levels are rising”. 

  • Ben Kintisch

    The dutch have taught the world how to bike better, and they sure know how to control water. Remember, New York was once New Amsterdam….we can learn a lot of important stuff from our Dutch friends.

  • khalil

     The NY Times article is a good one. I suggest people read it, especially because it quotes scientists rather than politicians.  Its a good start, but does not delve deeply enough into the science, but it covers the critical features of the problem.

    One cannot pin a single storm or chance melding of two systems on climate change. Climate change will alter the long term trends, which is different than short term variability. Sorta like the stock market, 1929-present.

    If there is value in having pols discuss climate change after a big storm, it is because in the realm of politics, one has to have what Karen Allen called the plagues to get their attention.  The slow and hard discipline of climate science is too…well..dull for most people.

  • carma

    while i certainly believe climate change has already changed our climate.  PLEASE stop pinning sandy’s destruction solely on climate change.  it was a freaky storm due to its massive size, (which possibly could be due to a change in weather).  but the fact is that this storm was exacerbated due to a 1/30 chance of landing on exactly a full moon causing high tides.

    certainly, the destruction would not have been catastrophic if it wasnt for that fact.

  • IanM

    @facebook-1054474092:disqus The article you link doesn’t indicate anything close to what you state. Every scientist quoted says climate change played a role, to varying degrees, as did pure chance.
    What are you advocating, anyway? Do nothing in the face of uncertainty? We’re not totally sure, so don’t bother preparing? That makes sense. We’re not certain when or where the next terrorist attack might occur, so why bother doing anything at all to defend ourselves?

  • Station44025

    So I guess since scientists won’t say any specific event is caused by climate change, even though there is a broad consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and accelerating, we shouldn’t do anything to mitigate or prepare for future disasters. Sounds like a plan. (a crappy plan, but a plan) Also, you’ll neve know if your cancer was caused by cigarettes or something else, so keep smoking.

  • Anonymous

    Please stick to transit issues, Angie and stop trying to shove your climate change agenda down our throats.  There is no relation between CO2 and Hurricane Sandy:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/11/02/a-reply-to-hurricane-sandy-alarmists/

  • @p_chazz:disqus You may have noticed that we frequently refer to transit as “sustainable transportation” on Streetsblog. That’s because we side with the vast majority of climate scientists who say that man-made global warming is real, and we believe less carbon-intensive transportation and land use policies are essential to averting the worst future scenarios. The effect of an event like Sandy on public attitudes directly affects the political landscape in which these policies are debated and, we hope, enacted. Hence this story.
    As for your refusal to acknowledge Sandy’s connection to climate change, you might want to take that up with Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, all the climate scientists who’ve pointed out how factors attributable to climate change worsened the effect of Sandy, and the majority of Americans who aren’t in denial about the reality of global warming.

  • Anonymous

    Just because a ‘vast majority” think something is real does not make it so. In 1633, a vast majority believed the sun moved around the earth

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the general premise that we should change our policies to combat climate change, but also agree with those who are pointing out that using Sandy as a central point in arguing in favor of that kind of policy change is intellectually lazy.  This is confusing weather with climate in the same way that people are incorrect to do so when they say “it was a cold winter, global warming isn’t real”. 

    That being said, I kind of think I’m OK with this in a Machiavellian way.

  • Anonymous

    The extreme strength of Sandy, and its unusual westward movement, *and* its unusual size, *and* the higher sea level to start with, were all traceable directly to global warming.

    It was also bigger than the biggest storm on record and had the largest measured sea level at the Battery.  It’s so far out on the curve that we can say for a fact that this disaster *was* caused by global warming.  The entire distribution of hurricanes damage has moved over to the “more damage” end, and Sandy is the one which would have been off the end of the curve previously.

    I know my statistics and I know my science What’s intellectually lazy and wrong is to pretend that Sandy would have been the same without global warming.  It would have been far less damaging, and that’s proven with overwhelming evidence by now.

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