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Sandy & Other Disasters Could Hurt Climate Change Cause

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Hurricane Sandy has proven to be a wake-up call about the potential dangers posed by climate change, and it’s even possible — though by no means certain — that we won’t just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep as the images of destruction in New York and New Jersey begin to fade.

Assuming we stay awake, however, there’s a question about what we’ll do with our new awareness (a mere 25 years or so after climate change first hit the news in a major way). Since the early 1990’s, at least, scientists, environmentalists and world leaders have called repeatedly for climate mitigation — that is, reductions in emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in order to stave off global warming. That was also the major focus of the U.N.-sponsored treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997.

Hurricane Sandy damage in Seaside, N.J.
Credit: Tim Larsen/ Governor's Office.

It makes a lot of sense: better to start eating healthy foods now rather than gorge on cheeseburgers and fries and treat your heart attack when it finally comes. But for many of us, cheeseburgers, like cheap, fossil fuel-based energy, are very seductive. That’s why the climate concerned have downplayed talk of adapting to global warming by shoring up our defenses against rising seas and other dangers. As Michael Lind wrote at thebreakthrough.org,

“Rather as peace activists during the Cold War discouraged talk about civil defense, lest it make nuclear war seem more thinkable, many Greens seem to believe that discussing adaptation would reduce support for mitigation, which they hope will be driven by a public sense of urgency if not panic.”

It hasn’t worked out that way. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have continued to mount, temperatures have kept rising and sea level has inched inexorably upward. Now Hurricane Sandy, along with this summer’s crushing drought and plenty of other climate disasters are quite plausibly the first inklings of the heart attacks to come.

Public officials are rightly responding to the emergency in front of them at the moment, not to the underlying causes. They’re talking about storm surge barriers, sea walls and other protective measures that could cost billions, but which could save billions more in future damage.

It would be crazy not to start talking seriously about such measures, given that the outliers of coming climate disasters have already begun to happen, and places like New York City and South Florida had started planning long before Sandy or Irene showed up. So have a number of coastal cities around the world.

But the greatest barrier to cutbacks in greenhouse gases has been economic: if we stop burning cheap fossil fuels, or capture their emissions, it will make energy more expensive, at least in the short run. Politicians simply haven’t been willing to ask for that kind of sacrifice today to stave off that heart attack down the road. 

If we’re now going to spend billions on adaptation, how likely is it that they’ll keep calling for emissions reductions as well? It could be that in a perverse way, Hurricane Sandy, the drought and other climate disasters could push those reductions into some indefinite future — and make the climate problem even worse than it might otherwise have been. 

Related Content
Will Sandy Be the Climate Change Wakeup Call We Need? 
Barring Unusual Cold, 2012 Will Be Hottest Year on Record 
Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Across Globe Hit Record High
How Global Warming Made Hurricane Sandy Worse
New York’s One-Inch Escape from Hurricane Irene

« Commentary


By Dave (Basing Ridge, NJ 07920)
on November 9th, 2012

I have to say that I think the immediate cost issue for consumers of switching away from fossil fuels is becoming a lot more debatable in detail. The cost of solar PV is coming down rapidly. Wind is also more economic than it ever was. Nuclear is of course the major zero carbon footprint option for bulk power. In NJ BTW about half the electric generation is from nuclear compared with 20% nationally. Then if one factors in the hidden costs associated with the suffering and treatment of health issues linked to the huge amounts of atmospheric and water pollution that come with a fossil fuel economy then it seems to me that alternatives to fossil fuels look attractive for society in general. Then there is the climate change imperative of cutting back GHG emissions. Taking all that into account I think that transitioning away from fossil fuels is an all around no brainer for consumers.

On the other hand, what is and has always been clear is that the broad range of fossil fuels industries stands to lose profits if alternative fuels gain a significant foothold. Those profits are often very high. In 2008 representatives from both the major political parties put climate change on the agenda. By 2012 it had been wiped off the US political landscape. There was a Frontline on PBS recently called “Climate of Doubt” which reviewed how that happened and the link to fossil fuel money: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/climate-of-doubt/

So I and apparently many others think that the barriers to implementing a national climate change agenda by recognizing the need for it and more aggressively developing alternative energy sources and infrastructure is as much a lacl of political will as it is financial and that these days it is sadly often difficult to tell the two apart.

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By Amy Luers (San Francisco)
on November 10th, 2012

I agree with your concerns. We are coming up against thresholds, but I caution that we avoid being blinded by the urgency of numbers and the risks. We have a big challenge in front of us and it will take time to shift the mood of the country. In the meantime, there is a great deal of climate risk management that we will need to take on. See more of my views on this in my recent post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review—“Blinded by Urgency”. Link here: http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/blinded_by_urgency#related_stories

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By Jim Prall (Toronto, ON M4K 2X8)
on November 10th, 2012

Maybe once we’re forced to start paying for unavoidable adaptation costs, the price of emission reductions could start to look more worthwhile as well as necessary.

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By mlemonick
on November 11th, 2012

Thanks, Amy, I’ll read your post with great interest

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By Len Conly (Berkeley, CA 94706)
on November 11th, 2012

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change talked about the mitigation costs and benefits in 2006.  Unfortunately the denialist machine convinced the public to ignore the problem.

“According to the Review, without action, the overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year, now and forever. Including a wider range of risks and impacts could increase this to 20% of GDP or more.

The Review proposes that one percent of global GDP per annum is required to be invested in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”


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