Listening to Hurricane Sandy: Climate Change is Here

By Andrew Steer - Nov 2, 2012
This post originally appeared on Bloomberg.com.

Hurricane Sandy was a massive and deadly storm, extending more than 1,000 miles, bringing huge waves and more than 13 feet of water to parts of New York City. In Manhattan, floods swept away cars and overflowed subway stations. Along the Jersey shore, homes, property, and businesses were washed away in just a few hours. More than 8 million people in the northeastern United States lost power. Tens of millions more have been affected. And, tragically at least 160 people lost their lives in total. Outside of the United States, six Caribbean countries were battered by the storm, taking lives and destroying property as it struck. Some early estimates say the storm will cost $50 billion; others say it will be more.

Sadly, science tells us that this type of event will become much more common as our climate continues to change.

Climate change is here and its impacts are being felt today. As Governor Cuomo said earlier this week, “Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

Here’s what we know: an overwhelming majority of scientists tell us that the Earth’s climate is heating largely due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, which, in turn, is driving more extreme weather and climate events. The underlying changes–warmer oceans, more intense precipitation events, and rising sea levels–are significant contributors to storms like Sandy. Around the world, we’re seeing heavier rainfall and record-breaking high temperatures, and many areas are experiencing more severe droughts and more wildfires. These patterns are precisely what climate scientists have said we should expect in a warming world (pdf). Further, these extreme weather and climate events are taking a serious toll as they disrupt people’s lives and our economy.

This should not be a partisan issue. Two Republicans (Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon) topped a recent poll of the most environmentally supportive U.S. presidents. Moreover, it was just a few years ago when politicians from both parties were taking climate change seriously. Republicans Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsay Graham, as well as a number of House members, have shown leadership Congress on these issues in recent years. EPA administrators, including William Ruckelshaus and Christine Todd Whitman, who served under Republican Presidents Nixon and George W. Bush respectively, share similar views.

Nowhere in the world is the issue of climate change as polarizing as it is here in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced the challenge of climate change, and announced ambitious emissions targets. Meanwhile, governments in Australia, China, South Korea, Mexico, the EU, and elsewhere have enacted policies to effectively put a price on carbon.

U.S. politicians’ silence on climate change is not only out of step with the rest of the world, but also with the American people, the vast majority of whom are concerned about climate change.

Why should we act?

The human and economic costs of Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events are abundantly clear. In 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 14 extreme weather and climate events of more than $1 billion in the United States, totaling approximately $55 billion. Looking at the bigger picture, a recent report found that the failure to act on climate change is likely to cost the world economy 1.7 percent of GDP, approximately $1.2 trillion per year in the near term, with the figure expected to double by 2030.

Shifting to clean energy opens new economic opportunities, including taking advantage of the $2.3 trillion global clean energy market expected to emerge in the next decade (pdf). The United States is lagging while other countries, like China and Germany, surge ahead.

There is some good news. Many U.S. city and state-level officials are recognizing the need to address this crisis. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for one, has worked with his counterparts in the U.S. and around the world to cut city-level emissions, which account for around 70 percent of global carbon pollution. As he wrote yesterday, the risk of climate change should “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

New York has a robust climate strategy, including actions to reduce emissions and prepare for climate change impacts through PlaNYC. Other cities, from Chicago to Tokyo to Sao Paulo, are likewise investing in strategies to reduce emissions and enhance people’s resilience for an increasingly volatile world.

Now we need this kind of leadership at the national level. So, let’s make sure to learn the lessons from this storm by putting in place a national strategy to cut emissions and prepare for the impacts of our changing climate.

If the winners of next Tuesday’s election in the White House and Congress want to deliver progress for the citizens of this country, and to the world, they should immediately get to work on preparing and implementing smart actions to address climate change. Let’s all face up to the issue, talk about it directly, and act as if our future depends on it – because it does.

Steer is president of the World Resources Institute.