For the fall 2012 semester, I taught 3 environmentally-themed courses. Towards the end of the semester, students in these courses had assignments on topics that were relevant to this blog. I have selected some of the best works and messages to share as a series of posts for the readers until I sort through the outcomes of COP18 and write up a summary. Enjoy. dwh
Will We See Sandy Again?
On a sandy beach, the high tide line is a ribbon of shells and seaweed. It marks reliable swells of the ocean as it inhales and exhales with the tides. On the front door of a home, it is a ruler of salt and grime. It marks the feet of water that inundated a home or the inches that spared it from ruin. One glance at that line, and you know which it was.
After the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, east coasters are pulling together with the kind of grit we’re known for. Drive into Atlantic City and the billboards will tell you, “Nice try Sandy, but we’re Jersey Strong.”
But Sandy didn’t just cross the line. She redrew it.
The assertion that our shifting climate will bring erratic, extreme weather isn’t new. But Superstorm Sandy has forced us to consider the impacts of climate change on weather with new urgency. I should add that according to NOAA’s “State of the Climate Report,” released Thursday, this year will end as the warmest on record for the United States.[i]
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed this growing concern at this year’s United Nation’s climate change conference. Rising sea-levels and increasingly frequent super storms, he said, are signs of a climate crisis.[ii] To his audience of over 200 nations he said, “Abnormal is the new normal.”
Of course we cannot say with absolutely certainty that severity of Sandy can be attributed to climate change. Extreme weather events themselves are single data points; they can’t show us what comes next. But when we factor in other extreme events, like droughts and flooding, we see that Sandy is on trend.
As Elizabeth Kolbert put it in her recent piece for the New Yorker, “As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change. However, it is possible to say that the storm fits the general pattern in North America, and indeed around the world, toward more extreme weather, a pattern that, increasingly, can be attributed to climate change.”[iii]
We can say that the symptoms of climate change certainly work to make extreme weather more destructive. Consider that hurricanes are fueled by warm water. Our oceans are over a degree Celsius warmer than they were a century ago[iv]. Sea level has risen a foot, on average, in the same time. In places on the east coast where land is simultaneously sinking, sea level is 18 inches higher than sixty years ago.[v]
In a post for the American Geophysical Union, Meteorologist Dan Satterfield wrote, “Ask someone in New Jersey, who had a foot of water in their house, if they wish it were 18 inches lower.”[vi]
This assertion that our changing climate is brewing a world of more frequent, more destructive storms is not easy to stomach. And it will resurrect our hackneyed debate over climate change. It’s hard. It’s hard to look at a planet so immense and imagine that we are turning up its thermostat. It’s hard to face the science that tells us what kind of planet we are going to leave our kids. So is rebuilding the infrastructure, lives, and confidence of an entire coast.
Rather than waste ink resurrecting the points of that debate, let it come down to this. Imagine your loved one is sick. You take her one to a doctor, who diagnoses her with a serious illness. You go for another opinion. Then another, until 97 of those doctors agree, she needs help. Would you side with the other three because their diagnoses is the one you want to hear? When would you begin treatment?
According to a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97% of climate scientists agree that we are experiencing human accelerated climate change.[vii]
We can never know if the severity of Sandy destruction was truly a symptom of climate change. But will we wait for more extreme storms, floods, and droughts before we can agree that we have a serious problem?
Sandy hurt. But we know we cannot redraw the high tide line that flooded the homes and crushed the spirits of millions. We can only rebuild. But deciding when we have wasted enough time in addressing climate change, that is a line that we can draw.
[i] Chris Dolce. “Record Warmest Year a "Virtual Certainty.” The Weather Channel. <http://www.weather.com/news/warmest-year-on-record-noaa-november-20121206 >
[ii] Barbara Lewis & Alister Doyle. “Extreme Weather is New Normal, U.N.’s Ban Tells Climate Change Talks.” Insurance Journal. <http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2012/12/05/272768.htm>
[iii] Elizabeth Kolbert. “Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change.” The New Yorker. <http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/10/watching-hurricane-sandy-ignoring-climate-change.html#ixzz2DdLIkGS2>
[iv] Dan Satterfield. “What Those Who Understand Atmospheric Physics Are Talking About After Sandy.” American Geophysical Union. <http://blogs.agu.org/wildwildscience/2012/11/01/what-those-who-understand-atmospheric-physics-are-talking-about-after-sandy/>
[vii] William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider. “Expert credibility in climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. <http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.full.pdf+html>