Hurricane Sandy: It’s “Global Warming, Stupid”

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.

[Image credit: Rob Gross: Flickr Creative Commons]

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.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

9 responses

  1. Nice personal view. But why make it political electioneering ?? Afraid most people in Europe/Asia/Africa does not care a lot about who wins the american election. In my mind it gravly diminishes the value of the paper.

  2. RPS would you care to cite the scientific papers that suggest that the human race will go extinct because of global warming? I love reading scientific papers and have not found any such papers to be convincing yet so, I look forward to you citing the ones that have you convinced. I would also add that none of the people you cite in your article are tropical storm experts. I prefer information supported by data from experts and so far from my research the experts verdict is that global warming was not a factor in Sandy event. Even Munich Re’s top storm risk guru stated in an interview on November 4, 2012 that Sandy had nothing to do with global warming. A check of KNMI sea surface temperatures for the last 70 years shows no significant warming in the Atlantic area where Sandy was formed and tracked. The experts look at data from paleoclimate records and historical storm records for perspective which is the sensible and scientifc way to evaluate storms.
    I reviewed numerous scientific papers on tropical storms and on October 26, 2012 saw a presentation by the 2nd most cited tropical cyclone scientist in the field regarding the latest evidence of the relationship between global warming anf tropical cyclones.
    The peer reviewed literature on tropical cyclones suggests via models that future global warming will increase tropical cyclone intensity by 2% to 11% (average = 6%) but that warming will decrease the number of intense tropical cyclones in the future. The literature also indicates that the earliest that a detectable human signal might emerge is 2080.
    I don’t take issue with addressing the need for dealing with climate change which is a critical concern, but exaggerating the significance of an event has not worked in the past, Katrina, and continued use of such tactics is doomed to fail. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has expressed the same view in one of his recent articles. Take care.

    1. Of course, I was exaggerating to make a point. It is election day after all. In fact, there is not enough data or understanding available yet to make this kind of prediction with any certainty. But I also don’t think any scientist would rule out the possibly that if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts, that we could eventually suffer a complete collapse of the natural systems we depend on. And we don’t really know with much precision how close to that point we actually are right now. Humans are clever enough of course, that some of us would likely survive this (those with enough money and resources, perhaps), but certainly this outcome would be catastrophic in every sense of the word. I think the folks in NYC might say, it is already. Do you take comfort in the thought that things might not get “really bad” for 100 years? I don’t. By all means go ahead and listen to the experts, But based on my own experience, (and I have been an international expert in some areas myself during my business career), experts can often have a narrow view and miss the big picture. It is the job of writers like myself, to take the findings of experts and others and put it into context for a broader audience. That’s what I do now and that’s what I tried to do here, which is to make the point that it doesn’t matter whether this particular storm was caused by, or strengthened by, or made more likely by, or none-of-the-above by global warming. What matters is the overall trend, which, it seems, your experts agree with. Even 6% is $3 billion and 7 lives, nothing to sneeze at, and that percentage is bound to grow in the future if we do nothing to stop it. I don’t agree with Kevin Drum about this. I think that as the previous commenter said, when people look at the cost of these events, it’s going to start showing up on the radar screens of even those who think in terms of nothing but cost. Hopefully that means they will start modifying their choices.

  3. Many stationed on the east coast experienced, first-hand, the sea level rising “from 6 to 11 feet from [the storm] surge and waves” created by Hurricane Sandy. As we
    move into the future, and as climate change and its effects worsen,
    storms like hurricane Sandy will become more commonplace. Even if we
    leave the danger and inconvenience of environmental effects aside, the
    literal cost of these types of storms is huge. So far, some figures have
    been put forth estimating that “the storm will cost $50 billion;
    others say it will be more.” With the extreme costs of climate change
    in mind, and the fact that science tell us “that this type of event will
    become much more common”, our nation’s environmental consciousness must change for the better. One way to start this process is by becoming informed as to the
    environmental positions of our presidential candidates. As Mr. Cuomo,
    the current governor of New York stated earlier this week, “Anyone who
    says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

    I agree that climate change is a large issue that political groups as
    well as individuals must act towards correcting as soon as possible.
    With this urgency in mind, as is mentioned at the end of the post, what
    matters is not what we have already done in the past, what “really
    matters is where we go from here.” As mentioned by Mr. Siegel above, “We can start by making sure this guy [I believe referring to Romney] doesn’t get into the White House.”
    Although there is some merit to this view, Romney is not the only
    presidential candidate with flaws in his energy policy and views on
    climate change. It is true that Obama recognizes “the urgency of the
    situation” with respect to the environment, however, recognition of the
    issues is not enough to save our planet. Authors such as John Bellamy Foster and Michael Klare help elucidate this point. Foster, a leading sociologist at the
    University of Oregon says that our decisions to create a world that is
    environmentally friendly is an idealistic claim that will not change our
    negative affects on the climate. Foster focuses on capitalism as the
    driving economic force that necessitates pollution and unnecessary
    growth. From this perspective, capitalism is the climate change culprit,
    and no amount of renewable energy sources will change that fact. How
    then can we expect a single man to change the global status quo simply
    by seeing “the farthest and… [setting] priorities based on the long
    term”? It seems, from Foster’s view that climate change has risen above
    being as easy fix for our nation and the world.

    Brandon Phipps

    1. Brandon
      Believe me, I am not naive enough to believe that Obama will fix the problem. We need to change the system more dramatically than he is likely to even consider. But I said we can start by making sure Romney doesn’t get in, because while Obama will probably only make things a little bit better (when we need them to get a lot better), Romney will make them far worse. He has said as much in his campaigning. And his policies would likely push us beyond anything we could possibly recover from.That being said, I don’t necessarily believe that we need to get rid of capitalism altogether, but we need to modify the system to disallow wealth and political power to become as highly concentrated in the hands of a few, as they are now. My thinking on the subject resonates with that of Robert Reich (Aftershock) and David Korten (Agenda For a New Economy), both of whom I have cited multiple times in this column and highly recommend.

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