Sandy and Climate: Right or Wrong, Media Now Going There
October 30, 2012
Pro Forma qualifiers notwithstanding (‘we can’t attribute any particular event yadda yadda…) – this current storm, crashing on top of the east coast media establishment – has inevitably pushed the media conversation to a new level of climate discussion.
And not just the usual suspects..
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Charleston church group recently heard a slide lecture on billion-dollar weather damage and mass human suffering caused by global warming, worsened by air pollution. The grim show came from the Climate Reality Project headed by former Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his warnings.
The lecture is apt today as Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm,” ravages the populous East Coast. Hurricanes, caused by ocean heat, have become stronger, deadlier, more costly. Sandy spans nearly 2,000 miles across its cloud swirl, almost the distance from Charleston to California.
More Frankenstorms and other weather horrors can be expected, the Gore group says. It warns:
* Tornados have become worse menaces, obliterating some cities such as Joplin, Mo.
* Floods and mudslides from monster rains ravage Third World cities. Mississippi Valley floods also have become more destructive.
* Droughts are turning some agriculture regions into worthless desert, bankrupting farmers and elevating food prices.
* Wildfires have consumed vast sections of western forest and suburban neighborhoods.
* Tropical diseases and parasites keep moving northward.
No one talks much about climate change anymore. But let’s get real: This hurricane is exactly the sort of event that scientists have warned us about.
The climate-deniers will tell you that a hurricane like Sandy might have hit us anyway, and that storms of this magnitude occurred long before the industrial revolution. All true.
But when we see a never-ending series of gigantic, record-breaking weather events across the globe, any sane person has to concede that something is terribly amiss.
Nine of the 10 hottest years since record-keeping began have occurred since 2000. The glaciers are melting. And there has been a measurable increase in freak weather — from the record floods in China and Bangladesh that left millions homeless last summer, to the freakish Halloween storm that buried New Jersey last year.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney concedes the problem and says mankind is contributing to it. But his cynicism on this issue is breathtaking. Because at the same time, he is campaigning hard in coal country, stirring up resentment against regulations imposed by the Obama administration. And he promises to reverse the singular climate achievement of the Obama years, the doubling of auto efficiency standards to 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.
When it comes to tropical cyclones like Hurricane Sandy, the climate links can be somewhat difficult to pin down. On the one hand, humans have warmed the planet about 0.8°C since the Industrial Revolution. As Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research likes to say, that affects allweather events to an extent. The oceans are now warmer, there’s more moisture in the air—those things help fuel hurricanes and alter other weather patterns.
And yet trying to attribute specific hurricanes to changes in global temperature remains quite difficult. In its big report on natural disasters last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said it had “low confidence” that humans were currently affecting tropical cyclone patterns. Hurricanes are far more complicated to study than, say, heat waves and the historical record is patchier. (For more on this, Andrew Revkin has an excellent discussion with climatologists over at Dot Earth.)
Looking ahead, meanwhile, scientists can say a bit more about future hurricanes—though only a bit more. The IPCC report noted that it was “likely” that tropical cyclones in some areas would get stronger, with faster winds and heavier rainfall, as the world warmed. The overall number of hurricanes, however, would most likely “either decrease or remain essentially unchanged.”