It’s not surprising that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy there has been contention over what role climate change played in the intensity of the storm. The battle lines have been drawn along familiar political contours with the liberals, who worry about frivolous nonsense like trying to keep the human race from going extinct, using the occasion to underscore the urgent need to take action on the issue, while conservatives, who are focused on far more sensible things like reducing the deficit, are quickly taking refuge in the fact that hurricanes have been around forever (even since before the climate allegedly changed), calling them acts of God, with some even going so far as to suggest that this storm was God’s punishment for various sinful behaviors.
But it was BloombergBusinessweek that really took the gloves off with the cover of this week’s edition sporting the title in big bold letters, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” a provocative echo of Bill Clinton’s famous line about the economy, used to great effect in his 1992 presidential campaign.
Editor Josh Tyrangiel tweeted: “Our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid.” Sounds like fightin’ words to me. But who can blame him for that, given the damage estimated at $50 billion and death toll over 110 and possibly rising as near-freezing temperatures move in among the newly homeless. Not to mention, of course, the overwhelming evidence that he is, for all intents and purposes, right.
He cites Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota who said: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is the storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.”
Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund offers this analogy, which looks to baseball for its inspiration. “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther.” So, we now have “weather on steroids.”
The basic physics of storms, like the basic physics of global warming are straightforward and indisputable. The only question seems to be whether or not we choose to apply it.
Because of its electromagnetic transmission spectrum, carbon dioxide reflects energy in the infrared region, rather than letting it pass through, hence the greenhouse effect. The effect was first discovered by Svante Arrhenius back in 1896. Likewise, hurricanes are known to get their energy from warm tropical ocean waters. Hence: warmer oceans, more energy. Similarly, basic science also tells us that warm air can carry more moisture in it than cool air. Hence: warmer air, more rain. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
Sandy occurred towards the end of the hurricane season, when the water should be cooling down. This is why severe storms this late in the season are rare. But according to NOAA, the waters Sandy passed through had temperatures that were far above average for this time of year.
Sure you can argue if you want to (and some people clearly want to) that the conditions for this particular storm could have existed anyway. And they are right, it’s possible. Just like Bonds might have been able to hit any one of his many homers without steroids. But if you just take even a little step back from that, you realize that it doesn’t matter. The overall trend is what matters.
And while it’s true that scientists can’t say for sure that the likelihood of this particular type of storm, “a freakish hybrid of a large, late-season hurricane and a winter storm more typical of the middle latitudes,” is specifically more likely in a climate that has become unnaturally warm, the fact that big, bad storms are seems pretty clear. Not only does the physics say so, but so does recent meteorological data. In each of the past three years, there have been 19 hurricanes, well above the long term average of 12. And keep in mind that this year’s hurricane season isn’t technically over until November 30th.
Of course, what really matters is where we go from here.
We can start by making sure this guy doesn’t get into the White House. We need someone who recognizes the urgency of the situation. Someone who is willing to look out ahead, not to the next election cycle, or the end of the next business cycle, but out multiple generations into the future. That is what leaders do.
We need the guy at the top to be the guy who can see the farthest and set priorities based on the long term, big picture view. Because, being too busy in our day-to-day lives, to think about these things is what got us here in the first place. This election is not just about America either. The whole world will be watching. Everyone will be impacted by the choice we make. Please go out and vote. Future generations are counting on you.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.