Editorial viewpoints from Climate Central's writers and editors.

Will Sandy Be the Climate Change Wakeup Call We Need?

Calling Hurricane Sandy a disaster almost underplays the enormous devastation wrought by this freakish monster of a storm. Four days after Sandy came ashore just south of Atlantic City, millions are still without power, gas stations are running out of fuel, and the death toll continues to rise.

But for those of us who worry about climate change, Sandy might not have been an unmitigated disaster. The storm wasn’t “caused” by climate change, as Climate Central and others made clear. But in at least two, and possibly three ways, global warming almost certainly made Sandy worse than it would otherwise have been.

Bayville, NY on Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: Flickr/Casual Capture

That connection suggested to many commenters that after so many years of official reluctance to take on the issue climate change — including an unsuccessful U.N. conference in 2009, the failure of Congress to approve a cap-and-trade bill in 2010 and, most recently, the almost complete silence of the presidential candidates on the climate issue (in Obama’s case, a deliberate silence that dated back to the early days of his presidency) — that Sandy would serve as a long-awaited wake-up call that will bring action at last. After two years of freakish storms, killer heat waves and terrible droughts, Americans are finally connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change, so maybe political leaders will, too.

Signs of hope were bursting out all over. “Something important has happened,” super-activist Bill McKibben declared in The Daily Beast. “This is a huge wake-up call,” asserted Tom Brokaw on MSNBC, and Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post insisted that “Climate change is a national challenge. Ignoring it is not a solution.”

In fact, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided not to ignore it: two days after Sandy turned his city upside down, he formally endorsed Barack Obama for president, citing Obama’s positive (though limited) steps to limit carbon pollution.

But if we’re truly talking about a wake-up call or watershed moment or dramatic turnaround in the nation’s commitment to actually do something about the threat of climate change, I remain skeptical. I’ve been writing about climate since 1987, and I’ve seen plenty of watersheds. I remember when James Hansen testified before Congress back in 1988, saying “. . . the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

As McKibben reminds us, that consciousness-raising moment led to George Bush (the first) saying in 1988 that he would “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” In 1989, Time magazine named the endangered Earth “Planet of the Year,” in large part due to the threat of global warming.  In 1992, Bush signed a global climate agreement at the “Earth Summit” in Rio.

Waves crashing on Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA during Sandy. Credit: Flickr/jeffcutler

It was a series of watershed moments, coming in rapid fire, and it led to . . . almost no action at all, ultimately, on climate change. In the two decades since, carbon emissions have continued to grow, driving the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere steadily upward. This year is on track to be the warmest on record. The 2000s were the warmest decade on record (so far). Arctic sea ice melted back more during the summer of 2012 than any time since modern recordkeeping began.

In short, I’ve seen wake-up calls before. I’ve seen the American public and our political leaders wake up, smell the climate coffee (as it were). And I’ve seen them roll over and go back to sleep again.

So while I fervently hope McKibben and the others are right — that people will finally get it, and will take serious action on climate change — I have my doubts. I do see some prospect that leaders will begin working to protect people from the consequences of climate change, by making changes to cities, power plants and other infrastructure endangered by climate-driven floods, for example. In the especially vulnerable counties of South Florida, this sort of adaptation planning has been under way for a while now.

But if we’re talking about cutting our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — well, you’ll have to forgive me, but I’m reserving judgment over whether this wake-up call is any different from the rest.

Related Content:
Statistics Show Hurricane Sandy’s Extraordinary Intensity 
How Global Warming Made Hurricane Sandy Worse 
October Snowstorm Adds to 2011’s Billion Dollar Weather Disasters 
Drought Prompts Natural Disaster Declaration in 26 States 
Jim Hansen, Climate Bulldog: Still Going Strong at 70 
It’s Official: Arctic Sea Ice Shatters Record Low

« Commentary


By M Tucker
on November 2nd, 2012

Michael, I have to agree with you. I see no indication that the Republican Party has changed its stance. As a party they are firmly opposed to any government action. Romney supporters do not want to hear any messaging from climate activists as we all saw on the news last night. Romney will not say anything other than he is not sure human activity is responsible. And, most importantly, Republicans no longer need to respond to public opinion as they did more than two decades ago. The political world has changed dramatically since then. Of course the national stage is not the same as what state officials must respond to so we may see more action proposed at the local level, but I doubt any state will attempt cap’n trade legislation like California.

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By Cindy
on November 4th, 2012

I think you’re right.

But noting that Bush Snr only signed the UNFCCC in Rio because his negotiators had gutted it to the point that signing it meant the US didn’t have to take a single step toward action on climate change.  That’s why we had to negotiate Kyoto.  He would have been a global pariah if he didn’t sign it, and nobody knew until he got there whether he would.

The high point in US action in climate negotiations was probably the delegation of George Bush Jnr in 2007, when they agreed to “get out of the way”. 

We are not going to see a meaningful global treaty until US Climate Envoy Todd Stern and his henchman Jonathan Pershing have been removed as advisors to the Obama Administration (and chief US negotiators in the talks).

From the minute they arrived in the talks, they have been swinging a wrecking ball.  But a very subtle wrecking ball, where they manage to orchestrate it so the blame is put on a different country.  Obama has no idea about the poisonous way these two carry out his work.

In Durban, pretty much every blockage in the talks came down to a US red line.  They orchestrated a well choreographed dance, staging what looked like a major fight between the US and China/India in public,  but actually strategising together daily in private.  It worked.

So let’s see what happens in Doha later this month.  Will Stern and Pershing stop their games and actually get on with trying to get international agreement?  I very much doubt it.

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By Philip S. Wenz (Corvallis, Oregon, 97333)
on November 5th, 2012

For the past couple of days Dot Earth has hosted an ongoing discussion about the feasibility of all sorts of storm barriers around NY harbor under the aegises of the very hip sounding Community Resilience meme. Here’s a comment I posted on the issue:

These are all nice ideas, but I’m not sure they reflect the reality that climate change is upon us. How that’s getting missed in our post-Sandy world is puzzling.

It would be nice if we could spend the next couple of decades rebuilding the East Coast’s infrastructure with some resilience in mind. But what happens if Sandy’s big sister Mandy comes for a visit in a couple of years?

Rebuilding “resiliently” without addressing global warming is like addressing a symptom, say a high fever, without addressing the underlying disease, say pneumonia. If we have limited resources, WE NEED TO DRASTICALLY REDUCE OUR CARBON EMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY.

What can we do right now? Impose a 55 mph speed limit. Start “Beat Climate Change!” programs that reward people for cutting home energy consumption by using clotheslines (even indoors), riding bikes, eating local food and so on. Shift the work day (by law) to take advantage of daylight.

Build out of harm’s way where you can, of course, but we’d better slay the dragon before it slays us ”” all of us.

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By carl safina (11733)
on November 5th, 2012

Climate change is like a new religion. But in the most perverse way. Just as people pray more in the aftermath of horrors that provide evidence that either no God exists or that God doesn’t care about us individually, in the aftermath of climate horrors the climate denialists get more vehement in asserting their faith that, as one person commented on my CNN piece about Sandy, “Climate change is crap.” No amount of science, no measurements of a melting arctic or shrinking glaciers, nor physics, can shake this matter of faith. The corollary, of course is that scientists are “profit driven,” while the oil and coal and gas industries and those funding the denial apparatus, are somehow suffering discrimination. It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, in which people taken captive identify with and defend their captors.
    I find the case for climate change merely extremely convincing. (And I’ve seen a lot of it first hand in polar regions.)  I don’t accept it on faith or ideology. I wish it wasn’t true. I wish it wasn’t so convincing, because the implications of climate change go against my interests and the things I hold dear. But not only do science, images from space, and thermometers show that human activities are changing the atmosphere and the climate, ongoing evidence reinforces that proof.

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By Margaret Morris (Ventura, CA 93001)
on March 2nd, 2013

this may be off topic but I was not able to find a more appropriate place. I wanted to give feedback on your fine book “Global Weirdness,” which was a new purchase by our local library. It was excellent in its clarity, its simple language, and its comprehensiveness—with one glaring exception. Among the reasons for the increased demand for energy resulting increased use of fossil fuels, the most obvious is the increase in the human population in recent centuries. Likewise the most obvious means of reducing anthropogenic CO2 is to reduce the numbers of humans. Hopefully this could be done ethically and humanely by persuading people to have fewer children. This fundamental aspect of the problem was entirely left out of the proposed ameliorations of the effects of warming. Why?

I recall the Chinese declined to take more drastic steps to stop CO2 pollution with the rationale that their 1 child policy has already accounted for their share to the effort. Their claim is not without merit. I’m not suggesting the Chinese solution but rather a change in attitude toward the best size of families fostered perhaps by some tax incentives for not breeding along with education.

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