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A Few Notes on Sandy

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

A few thoughts while processing the enormity of the damage from Hurricane Sandy and wishing the best for family, friends and others who were in the path of the storm.

The extent of damage caused by Sandy may have been unprecedented, but it was not a total surprise. For years, scientists and officials in the New York metro region have warned of the dangers posed by the region’s combination of aging infrastructure, rising seas, and increasingly intense coastal storms. Looking back at our 2007 report on global warming impacts in New Jersey this morning makes for eerie reading. The report noted, among other things, the potential for calamitous flooding of Long Beach Island, the Meadowlands and the Tri-State region’s transportation network – all areas severely damaged by Sandy.

People can argue pointlessly about whether global warming “caused” Sandy. (The answer, as with all weather events these days, is “yes and no.”) The important thing, however, is that global warming dramatically increases the odds of storms with Sandy-like impacts occurring in the region in the years to come. Sea level rise alone will increase the potential for even ordinary coastal storms to create more widespread and severe flooding, never mind the potential for more intense storms.

In short, what you see on the cable news channels today represents what we are increasingly likely to get in a warming world.

When it comes to the debate over global warming, Hurricane Sandy brings two issues urgently to the fore. The first is whether this event will finally be the one that breaks through partisanship and culture war divides to convince the American people that climate change is a threat worth addressing. Those of us in the Northeast – who have now had to endure three billion-dollar weather disasters in the last 16 months (including Hurricane Irene and last October’s freak snowstorm) – are getting the picture, but will the rest of the nation? The current moment is reminiscent of the span of time between 2005 and 2007 when Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report shifted the public conversation – however briefly – from the question of whether global warming is real to the question of what we were going to do about it. That period yielded a raft of state clean energy policies that have helped bring carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. to a 15-year low. But the actions we’ve taken thus far are clearly not enough to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Let’s hope that policy-makers finally find the courage and the wisdom to take the many actions that we can take, starting today, to prevent even greater disasters in the future.

The second issue raised by Sandy is that of adaptation to climate change. Some environmentalists have tended to avoid serious discussions about adaptation to rising seas and more severe storms, and for perfectly logical reasons: the need to keep public attention squarely focused on the urgent need to reduce global warming pollution, and the fear that expensive investments in adaptation would siphon resources from the technological shifts we need to shift to a clean energy economy. Hurricane Sandy, I believe, should put an end to the mitigation/adaptation divide once and for all. There is now no doubt that investments in making communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change are necessary to protect the environment, human health and welfare, and our economy in the dangerous new world in which we live. The challenge will be to make those investments in ways that are both efficient and sustainable.