posted 2012-12-18 18:58:53

What Sandy Told Us

And why listening has never been so important 

Mike Stivers

Staff Writer

Though the torrential rains and violent winds of Hurricane Sandy have departed from the northeast, the social, ecological, and economic devastation it brought continues to ripple outward. The lives of most have returned to normal, but the destroyed homes, powerless residents, and grieving relatives remain among us. And while it seems impossible to identify any positive outcome of Hurricane Sandy, perhaps a silver lining may be found in the forced acknowledgment of the increasingly blatant effects of climate change.

Of course it’s impossible to know to what degree this latest superstorm was caused by man-made—or “anthropogenic”—climate change, but in the words of journalist Naomi Klein, this is “certainly [what] climate change looks like.”

Sandy joins the recent drought in the midwest, the immense wildfires in Colorado, and scorching hot summer in a collection of climate disasters that seem increasingly frequent and intense. Climate activist Bill McKibben recounts how “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere—the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average.”

If mere observation isn’t convincing enough, consider the recent report published by the World Bank. The report, entitled “Turn Down the Heat”, details the potential effects of a planet warmed by 4°C—a figure that “scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy [changes].”

So was Hurricane Sandy caused by global warming? George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at University of California at Berkely answers this question particularly well by invoking the concept of systemic causation. “Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease.” Thus the same principle applies to climate change, he claims. The unregulated burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil that contribute to a hotter planet is a systemic cause of natural disasters. “Systemic causation, because it is less obvious, is more important to understand,” he says. “A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions [...] and because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.”

The history of climate change cognizance, though short, is complex. It was only in the mid-1970’s when NASA climate scientist James Hansen began publishing on the effects of anthropogenic global warming. The progression of public acceptance seemed promising for a while, too. In 2008, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich, both former speakers of the House of Representatives, joined together to address climate change. The global warming consensus seemed in vogue. According to a Harris Poll taken in 2007, 71% of Americans believed that “increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming and an increase in average temperatures.” But in a perplexing turn of events, this figure had dropped to 44% by 2011.

Perhaps Hurricane Sandy will cause a resurgence in acceptance of the grim status of our planet’s ecology. In what may have been one of the most decisive events of this past election, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Barack Obama, citing the President’s potential to confront the climate change. “Our climate is changing,” said the Mayor. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given [Hurricane Sandy’s] devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” Though somewhat lacking in conviction, Bloomberg’s acknowledgement signifies a radical departure from the typical silence from the country’s political leaders.

Obama seemed to capitalize on this pressing concern, even if it is only temporary. In his victory speech on election night, Obama spoke of the “destructive power of a warming planet.” He elaborated on the subject in his first post-election news conference. Despite the fact that “we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change,” the President acknowledged that “what we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, [and] around the globe.”

In light of these public declarations, maybe global warming will again rise to the forefront of the American consciousness. In the wake of the Hurricane Sandy, perhaps the horrendous and systemic effects of climate change might re-emerge not only as a popular issue, but as a pressing one.

Politicians like Bloomberg and Obama have made these acknowledgments before, but as the nation’s recent history shows, rarely has this translated into effective political action. Curbing the horrific consequences of climate-caused natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy will require not only widespread acceptance of the problem, but a genuine will to combat it. It is impossible to know the full effects of a planet warmed even further by the burning of fossil fuels. But if Sandy has given us any insight, it is that those effects are powerful and destructive, and must be avoided.