Climate Silence No More As Sandy Rips Through the East Coast

There's a question I often pose to my undergrad students after discussing the many implications of climate change:

“Do you think we'll be able to change before it's too late, or do you think it's going to take some kind of natural disaster to get us moving?”

Unsurprisingly, most students choose the latter, although melancholically. It's not that they want it to be the case, but with all the data and warnings from scientists, up against the misinformation spewing from powerful fossil fuel corporations, they logically don't see it happening any other way.

It's the sad truth considering we're on the verge of a major presidential election and not once has either candidate discussed climate change or its potential threat to our country in the debates.

And while environmentalists and climate hawks rightfully shamed the candidates for not addressing the issue, apparently Mother Nature wasn't going to let “climate silence” continue. Hurricane Sandy slammed into the coast bringing the east coast to its knees.

I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is reality,” said NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the hurricane.

It's unfortunate that in order for politicians to start acknowledging the issue, let alone addressing it legislatively, it's taken the Atlantic's largest hurricane on record (1,000 miles in diameter) to submerge a 100-yr old subway system, decimate coastal properties, leave millions without power, and worst of all, kill dozens of citizens. Now they are forced to face the facts.

Subway flooding at the Whitehall Station, which had recently completed a $530 million remodeling (the stairs you see go down to the subway platform).

Well, except for Governor Romney, who, after multiple attempts by reporters, still refuses to answer simple questions about FEMA and disaster relief funding. Perhaps it's because he's eating his words right now after stating at the RNC that he has no interest in “slowing the rise of the oceans” or “healing the planet” - a statement Bill Clinton called him out on at a rally in Minnesota yesterday.

It's hard to deny seeing the predictions of climate scientists unfold. For example, warmer oceans would contribute to more intense storms. Ocean temperatures are 5 degrees F warmer than usual right now, intensifying the storm like a baseball player using steroids. This also increases the likelihood that a storm will track north.  As global temperatures continue to increase, so does the atmosphere's ability to hold moisture, leading to more rain.

Flooding at 14th St. and Ave. C in Manhattan

The sea levels are rising, encroaching up the coast and making storm surges more destructive (especially at high tide, as happened with Sandy). The Battery in lower Manhattan saw record storm surge levels, at over 9 feet above high tide. In fact, sea levels are rising 4 times faster on the Northeast coast of the US than the global average.

Lastly, even the record low Arctic ice levels may have influence over these types of storms by messing with the Jet Stream and blocking the storms from heading out to sea, instead shoving into the east coast.

“Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable,” continued Cuomo. “And if we’re going to do our job as elected officials, we’re going to need to think about how to redesign, or as we go forward, make the modifications necessary so we don’t incur this type of damage. This city, this region, is very susceptible to coastal flooding. It’s not something we’ve had to deal with historically with any frequency whatsoever. So we’re not built in a way that has the built in protections seen in other states.”

Over 100 homes in Breezy Point Queens burned when fire crews couldn't contain a fire caused by a burst electrical line.

Even Mayor Bloomberg couldn't deny the severity of weather events in recent years (even if he can't quite hop on the global warming reality train),

“What is clear is that the storms that we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before. Whether that’s global warming or what, I don’t know. But we’ll have to address those issues.”

This storm will cost the city and tri-state area billions in damages, for one storm, yet we refuse to invest in measures that could combat and mitigate climate change, in effect preventing these disasters from getting worse. Instead the conversation continues to be about “clean” coal, “natural” gas, and “home-grown” oil extracted within our borders. In the meantime, this is my second hurricane in New York in two years.

“There’s only so long you can say, ‘well this is a once in a lifetime and it will never happen again,” said Governor Cuomo, “I believe it’s going to happen again. I pray that it’s not; I believe that it is.”


So how many natural disasters is it going to take before we can have this long overdue conversation with our nation's leaders?


What say the people who told me global warming isn't happening because the streets of New York City aren't flooded with water?

Guess they'll have to pick on a new city.

The federal government won't act until the political leaders express, frankly, their concern. Gov. Cuomo's stark comments were great, but until this turns into a groundswell there's little to shake Congress.

Agree completely that there's been a failure by the presidential candidates to talk about climate change – but whose fault is it really?

I would put most of the blame on the news media, first. Reporters had ample opportunity to ask the candidates about climate change, but they didn't. It's not an important question. 

Second, the public deserves blame. In the candidate town halls, people fail time and again to raise climate change as an issue. Take the student (not to pick on him) in the second presidential debate who asked the question about his own job prospects. Did he think he would learn something new?  (It makes me wonder: Are colleges today inspiring students to take on the toughest challenges or to focus on themselves and their job prospects?) For that matter, any of the people in the town hall could have asked about climate change, but yet they didn't.

It's amazing, really, but climate change is low on the priority list of questions asked by anyone. In truth, the advocacy efforts remain small, and the lobbying machine has marginalized the scientific community. 

How many political leaders, really, will cite Sandy as evidence that we need to act on climate change? I don't think Sandy alone will change the focus. It will launch a lot adapatation planning and new spending, and it will make people more aware that sea level rise is real and serious, but to assume that it will also lead to a major shift in carbon usage and stop the tar sands from being exploited and Keystone built, extend the wind tax credit, among many other things, is an assumption that can't be made. 

I tend to agree with the outlook of the students that you have polled on this issue. It took Sandy to get some political recognition of climate change, but it remains, as an issue, on the margins and we all deserve a measure of blame for it.

It will take more extreme weather patterns and polar ice melt before the news media and the public makes climate change a question of importance and priority. This is not cynicism. But in the absense of any contrary evidence, I don't know what else to conclude.