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Sandy Brings Flurry of Attention to Climate Change

By Climate Central

As the flood waters from Hurricane Sandy have receded to reveal the extent of the storm’s damage - from the devastated coastline in New Jersey to the power outages that stretch as far west as Ohio - people are beginning to ask: can this storm be attributed to climate change?

Since Monday, hundreds of news stories and blog posts across the country, and across the spectrum of media, have been published asking just that question. Some of the best and most visible of those are collected here, to help guide you through this emerging debate.

Credit: NASA

The general consensus among climate scientists -- and this has been covered by Climate Central and many others -- is that absent rigorous attribution research, which can take many months or years, we don't know exactly how strong the link is between a storm like Sandy and climate change. Not yet, anyway.

Some of the superstorm’s impact came from a combination of factors that had nothing to do with climate change, such as the full moon that heightened high tides and exacerbated coastal flooding. National Geographic summed up those non-climatic factors well, in a piece written before the storm made landfall in New Jersey).

However, there were a number of factors that made Sandy’s impact worse and that can be linked to climate change. Those include sea level rise, an increase in ocean temperatures, and the odd weather patterns that steered the storm into the east coast. That weather pattern may be tied to the diminishing Arctic sea ice, although that research is still emerging. See coverage in the Associated Press and the New York Times for the scientific debate surrounding how much each of these factors contributed to the damage caused by Sandy. A longer, more technical discussion can be found on the New York Times Green Blog and on the Dot Earth blog.

You can also read Climate Central’s extensive coverage of the Arctic warming connection.

If you walk past newsstands this week it will be hard to ignore Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover, which states in no uncertain terms, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”. (Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel commented on Twitter that the cover “may generate controversy, but only among the stupid.”)

Credit: BusinessWeek

Looking past the less-than-subtle headline, the article takes a nuanced approach to explaining how the role of global warming is not one of direct causation. Eric Pooley of the Environmental Defense Fund, as quoted in the article, draws a parallel between Barry Bonds taking steroids and hitting a single home run. As he puts it, “We now have weather on steroids.”

Finally, columnists, bloggers and politicians have not missed this sudden flurry of attention paid to climate change, after the subject was completely ignored during all three of the presidential debates. Here are a few noteworthy news stories, blog posts and op-eds that attempt to place climate change in the context of the national discussion.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg surprised many by officially endorsing Barack Obama for president on Thursday. Saying that Hurricane Sandy “had reshaped his thinking,” Bloomberg said he felt “Obama was the best candidate to tackle the global climate change that the mayor believes contributed to the violent storm” that has paralyzed his city.

In their press conferences following the storm, both Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo referenced climate change as a possible culprit in the devastation. A New York Times editorial called for a broader discussion of climate change.

The Guardian highlights figures, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who have called for the two presidential candidates to bring climate change back into the national discussion, after a campaign that has largely avoided the issue. They also have a piece that focuses more on Obama’s climate policies.

Linguist George Lakoff at the Huffington Post released this blog post on Tuesday. While he exaggerates some of the purported impacts of global warming (“If we hit 2.0 Celsius... the earth -- and the living things on it -- will not recover.”), he makes a novel point about the semantics of debating climate change, and argues that we move past the simplistic cause-and-effect point of view.

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By Lewis Cleverdon
on November 1st, 2012

Andrew - I fail to see the need or justification for the equivocation that much of the MSM are resorting to. To applaud lip-service is to cede the debate.

Leaving aside the anomalous sea surface temperature that allowed Sandy to thrive so far north, its track in my view is quite sufficient to identify the major cause of its damages:

- Is there any other plausible origin for accelerating arctic sea ice loss than AGW ? If so, I’ve not heard of it.
- Is there any other plausible origin than arctic sea ice loss for the intensifying disruption of the northern hemisphere Jetstream ? Again, if so, I’ve not heard of it.

Without the disruption of the Jetstream providing exceptional conditions around Sandy’s advance northward, the probability of the hurricane veering west to landfall on the Jersey Shore, rather than veering east to dissipate in the Atlantic, is, I’m told, vanishingly small. And without making landfall, 99.9% of Sandy’s damages would not have occurred.

Dr Jeff Masters of Wunderground might care to put a percentage probability on that westward turn without a disrupted Jetstream providing the Fujiwhara effect, and I’d certainly trust his judgement. Perhaps you might ask him ?

It is the anti-science denialist argument that the chain of causation is merely a whole series of astonishingly extreme flukes, and to start the attribution of Sandy’s landfall from that basis of utmost benefit of the doubt is the antithesis of effective strategic analysis. Put it this way - Sandy killed over 80 Americans, and almost as many in the Caribbean - what homicide detective would start from the premis that the prime suspect must be given the utmost benefit of the doubt ? No professional detective, or defense analyst, will do that because they are tasked with identifying and controlling a threat to the public ASAP.
And I would point out that in Texas juries convict and judges execute people, and in more humane states they jail them for life, on far weaker evidence than we now have on Sandy.

In sum, while science has yet to get near modelling even the feedback dynamics by which AGW is causing the observed acceleration of arctic sea ice loss, there is a straightforward robust chain of logic affirming that it was the consequences of AGW that steered Sandy onto the Jersey Shore. To propose anything less is just another layer of lukewarmer self-censorship with which the media could indulge the White House for the next decade if it is not slammed as shameful prevarication. So for all it is less than polite to deniers, I’m delighted to see the headline -

and particularly chuffed to see that it is Bloomberg Businessweek stating it, rather than, say, Rolling Stone.

This is, I’d suggest, the beginning of the end of the bipartisan US climate policy of a “Brinkmanship of Inaction” with its Chinese rival. It is now obvious that the policy (launched by Bush and adopted by Obama) was based on a grossly optimistic assessment of the risks, specifically, (besides the raft of diverse and exceptionally damaging extreme events) it overlooked the present prospect of any autumn hurricanes northbound from the Caribbean being steered slap into America’s east coast. Year after year. From city mayors to re-insurance majors to strategic analysts in Washington that risk is patently untenable, and thus the bipartisan policy exacerbating it cannot, and will not, be sustained.

So besides slamming the fallback prevarication position, perhaps the most creative approach is to open discussion on just what a US accommodation with the requisite global climate treaty will consist of ? For instance:
- How is the global demand for America to address its cumulative* carbon emissions (*aka ‘historic’) to be resolved ?
- By what framework is the allocation of national tradable emission rights under a global carbon budget to be agreed with a necessary efficiency component to minimize emissions during the phase-out period, and a sufficient equity component to be both negotiable and also durable under the grave geo-political stresses that will be faced in the coming decades ?
- How is the necessary resort to albedo restoration to be reliably governed to control both anthropogenic and the feedbacks’ warming while emissions control and carbon recovery measures take effect ?

It might seem strange to propose this in a thread on Sandy’s origins, but I’ve yet to see such a discussion on any public US website in the last decade despite numerous calls to build a mass movement to demand climate action -  Without a clear, specific and credible charter of demands, that necessary mass movement has thus far remained a pipe dream by having nothing tangible around which to coalesce. I suggest that Sandy can be the turning point in developing that charter of demands if people choose to make it so.

Best regards,




Reply to this comment

By Andrew Freedman (Brooklyn, NY)
on November 2nd, 2012


You ask:

“- Is there any other plausible origin for accelerating arctic sea ice loss than AGW ? If so, I’ve not heard of it.
- Is there any other plausible origin than arctic sea ice loss for the intensifying disruption of the northern hemisphere Jetstream ? Again, if so, I’ve not heard of it.”

1) No, the only plausible reasons for accelerating Arctic sea ice loss is manmade climate change plus natural variability. Note though that natural variability still plays a role in this.
2) Yes, there are many other plausible explanations for the unusual jet stream configuration. As I noted in the story, blocking patterns are not in and of themselves unusual, but they may be getting stronger/more frequent in part because of climate change-related reasons. But random chance cannot be ruled out in this case, and many scientists simply aren’t on board with the Arctic warming = more blocking research yet.

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