Hurricane Sandy and the Clear Imperative of Climate Action

Hurricane Sandy NASA

Courtesy NASA Earth Laboratory

This blog is the second in a series of blogs examining the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and its connections to extreme weather and climate change. Other blogs can be read here.

It is 6:00 pm on Tuesday evening, just 24 hours since the ‘Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy  made landfall along the coast of New Jersey.  As I write this, one of the most compelling reasons for climate action is making its case apparent to any who will see.  Already, millions of homes are without power and Northeastern coastal communities have experienced major flooding, some with record storm surges.  However, that is just a part of Sandy’s overall impact.  When Sandy plowed through the Caribbean last week, it killed at least 69 people and damaged or destroyed well over 100,000 homes.  Before the storm blows out, we will have seen several million people without power (some of whom will suffer through below-freezing temperatures without heat), extensive flood, wind, and other weather-related damage, and additional deaths in the United States.

While Sandy is meteorologically unique, being the largest hurricane in Atlantic history measured by diameter of gale force winds, it is sadly the latest manifestation of an increasingly frequent, destructive phenomenon: extreme weather events fueled by global warming.  The extreme weather events of the past two years have provided plenty of impetus for the United States to take a good look in the proverbial mirror: in 2011 we witnessed 12 different billion-dollar natural disasters and thus far in 2012 we have experienced crippling drought, extreme wildfires, a Mid-Atlantic derecho, and a highly-active hurricane season that still has another month to go.  Despite these extreme weather events, the topic of climate change has been virtually nonexistent in public discourse, evidenced by its noticeable absence from the current presidential campaign (surfacing for the first time only after the official debates concluded during an MTV interview).

The science is clear: climate change is happening now, it is fueling extreme weather events, and it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.  Now our needed actions are equally clear: we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions lest we invite more catastrophes that risk our homes, our jobs, or our lives.

We have seen the impacts of global warming-fueled extreme weather far too many times for us to continue to write them off as mere ‘flukes.’  Just a year ago, some were calling Hurricane Irene and its costly impacts on the Northeast nothing more than a climate fluke.  Yet mere months later, here comes Sandy, a storm of arguably greater significance.  It would be a wise and rational response to the increasing frequency of such extreme events to ask what we can do to curb their devastation in the future, particularly because our children and grandchildren face a future of sustained climactic impacts due to greenhouse gases’ long life in the atmosphere.

Could we have avoided Hurricane Sandy’s level of devastation if we had taken climate change seriously over the past few decades since its known existence?  We can never know.  But can we avoid future catastrophes by taking action now?  Absolutely.

If you would like to volunteer or donate to hurricane relief efforts, please visit the Red Cross website.

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