Hurricane Sandy v. Denialism (AUDIO)
As Hurricane Sandy barrels into the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, we’re being treated to a sunny fall morning in the Pacific Northwest. Out here it’s the sound of silence that prevails, something I desperately wish I could share with the folks in Sandy’s path. There is another type of silence that is as damaging to people here in Seattle as it is to those on the East Coast. This insidious silence affects families all around the world and generations yet unborn. I’m talking about climate silence.
Last week I wrote about the complete absence of a discussion on global climate change in our Presidential debates up until that point. Well, we had the final debate last Tuesday and once again neither candidate felt compelled to go off-script. They swept the debates like the Giants swept the Tigers. This is the first time since 1984 that climate change or global warming was not discussed as a major policy issue in the debate process. This week, Sandy is providing a reality check for both party platforms.
Hurricane Sandy is a hybrid super storm born out of an Arctic front, which made a mutant storm baby with a tropical storm that had proceeded across the Atlantic in the usual fashion. It is the largest storm ever to hit the eastern seaboard, and while it’s not as powerful as Hurricane Katrina it could easily be as significant. The storm stretches an unprecedented 525 miles from its eye, giving it a reach Muhammad Ali would covet. It has gathered historic volume over a record-warm Atlantic Ocean and amid the lowest pressures ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. Don’t let “Category 1” fool you. It is, quite simply, a monster.
“But wait!” you say, “Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes. This whole argument is bunk.” I concede. Climate change does not, in itself, cause hurricanes; tropical storm systems are naturally occurring events that would happen regardless of our atmospheric tinkering. What climate change does do is provide the conditions ripe for more frequent extreme weather events. Seems to me they should really rethink the name “hundred year” flood, drought, hurricane, or storm when they are happening every single year. This morning 350.org founder Bill McKibben warned Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:
Well, look, I mean, global warming doesn’t cause hurricanes. We’ve always had hurricanes. […] But we’re producing conditions like record warm temperatures in seawater that make it easier for this sort of thing to get, in this case, you know, up the Atlantic with a head of steam. We’re making—we’re raising the sea levels. And when that happens, it means that whatever storm surge comes in comes in from a higher level than it would have before. […] What really is different is that there is more moisture and more energy in this narrow envelope of atmosphere. And that energy expresses itself in all kind of ways. That’s why we get these record rainfalls now, time after time. I mean, last year, it was Irene and then Lee directly after that. This year, this storm, they’re saying, could be a thousand-year rainfall event across the mid-Atlantic. I think that means more rain than you’d expect to see in a thousand years. But I could pretty much—I’d be willing to bet that it won’t be long before we see another one of them, because we’re changing the odds. By changing the earth, we change the odds.
So no, climate change doesn’t explicitly create new hurricanes. What it does do is juice up the ones that do form; it makes them bigger, stronger, more persistent, and more dangerous. Shortly before Mayor Bloomberg issued an evacuation order for almost 400,000 New Yorkers yesterday, there was a demonstration in Times Square that urged people to connect the dots and “End Climate Silence.”
It’s not just protesters urging anyone who will listen to take seriously the connection between anthropogenic ocean warming and freak storm systems. Two weeks ago the National Academy of Sciences —not exactly an activist organization—published a study that concluded that North Atlantic hurricanes are, “more of a danger when ocean temperatures are higher. In particular, we estimate that Katrina-magnitude events have been twice as frequent in warm years compared with cold years.” Convenient findings since we’re currently nearing the end of the warmest year on record.
Does everyone remember the hydrologic cycle from elementary school science class? Water evaporates more quickly in warm environments than cold ones. It’s that simple. I have no professional scientific training, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand what is happening. When we warm the earth with heat-trapping industrial emissions, there’s more water evaporating into the atmosphere, therefore it’s more likely we will experience the consequences of that energy-saturated atmosphere in the form of extreme weather events. Every year we continue down the same path, we’re loading the dice even more.
Let’s pause and check my assumptions. 1.) Global climate change is happening. 2.) Humans emissions and impacts are largely responsible. 3.) Climate change increases the likelihood of a whole host of extreme weather events including hurricanes, droughts and floods. If all of these are true, it leads to the same obvious and enormous question that has been completely absent from our electoral process. Why isn’t the United States doing anything about it?
The percentage of U.S. citizens who believe in human-caused climate change has actually declined significantly from four years ago. In 2008 both major political parties devoted time to outlining their different plans to deal with global climate change. At the national level there was no debate over the importance of addressing this monumental issue. On the contrary, McCain and Obama sparred about who would deal with it more forcefully. This year the number of Americans who agree that humans are responsible for climate change has dropped to about 50%. We were not treated to a discussion of climate change mitigation strategies in the debates, even though a realistic discussion of our economy is impossible without acknowledging the reality we will soon have to confront one way or another.
Emergent confusion about climate change is the result of a highly orchestrated and well-funded misinformation campaign by organizations like the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. These “think tanks” (think is a very generous word) have one goal, create uncertainties in the scientific validity of climate science. They don’t even need to “win” the argument. Partly because it’s impossible for them to legitimately win with their bunk science, but mainly because the creation of doubt is their raison d’être. Introducing doubt where there previously was none is enough to slow down the response and keep things moving along nice and steady for their boosters. Speaking of funding, the financial support for these organizations and their kin is intentionally muddy; suffice it to say they are financed largely by fossil fuel lobbies, industry groups, and fabulously wealthy executives who benefit from the status quo.
The doubt they have sewed into the American consciousness is holding up progress in the rest of the world. The United States has the power to tip the scales in the response to global climate change, but as long as the political process remains beholden to fossil fuel lobbies and the Chamber of Commerce little can be done. Compared to the rest of the world the United States near the top of the list in terms of citizens who know about climate change, but is near the bottom of the list in terms of acceptance of human causation. Shame on us.
Please don’t take my word for it. I strongly suggest you watch this fantastic Frontline report entitled “Climate of Doubt” about the misinformation campaign currently being waged in an effort to keep us trapped in a fossil fuel circus. You’ll have to watch it soon; who knows how much longer the folks at PBS will last.
Contrary to what the Heartland Institute would have you believe, the science is settled. Their efforts on behalf of the fossil fuel industry have bordered on offensive. Check out this priceless billboard they put up in Chicago last year.
It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. The fact remains that over 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is real and is accelerating. Both the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA have issued numerous startling reports saying virtually the same thing. Don’t want to believe the scientists? Okay, that’s fine. How about the insurance industry? In early 2012 representatives from The Reinsurance Association of America met with members of the U.S. Senate to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change and plead for some sort of legislative action. It’s very possible the insurance industry as we know it will not survive the accelerating pace of “hundred year” weather events.
I can’t underscore the seriousness of our collective failure to act strongly enough. This blog is in part a chance for me to get on the record. It’s an opportunity to be on the right side of history. If we don’t confront this challenge I’ll have to explain to my children and grandchildren what was going on in the other Washington and why they didn’t act until it was too late. Check out this clip of Fmr. Representative Bob Inglis (R-SC). In 2010 he lost his reelection bid in a landslide to a Tea Party candidate. His crime? He admitted that he agreed with 97% of climate scientists about the validity of climate change and that humans were likely responsible. Imagine that, a ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment listening to climate scientists.
Instead of addressing this issue head on, our elected leaders are putting their heads in the sand. Perhaps it more accurate to say that industry lobbies have dug the holes to make the head-putting easier, but ultimately it’s a failure of leadership. This failure to act is extremely significant. As Noam Chomsky recently observed, “Our response demonstrates an extraordinary willingness to sacrifice the lives of our children and grandchildren for short-term gain. Or equally remarkable, a willingness to shut our eyes so as not to see impending peril.”
I really hope that Hurricane Sandy spares everyone in her path. We used to live in Miami. I have been through hurricanes and let me tell you, they’re no fun. I earnestly pray that no lives are lost at Sandy’s behest. Being in the middle of that kind of storm is a humbling demonstration of the awesome power of nature. A hurricane does not negotiate and it does not respond to opinion polls. At the same time, sometimes the only way to encourage wholesale policy change is through widespread discomfort. Famed economist Milton Freidman said it best:
Only a crisis —actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
The increasing frequency of extreme weather is an apt reminder of who is in charge. We are all subject to the whims of Mother Nature and if we continue to abuse her, she will continue to respond in ways we humans have no control over.
Want to get involved? Come to 350.org’s Do the Math Tour. They’re coming to a city near you. Get informed. Join the movement!!