The storm that wreaked havoc on Caribbean nations and the U.S. East Coast in late October offers a glimpse into our future. Along with recent heavy rainfall, flooding, heat waves and droughts throughout the world, it's the kind of severe weather event scientists have been telling us to expect as global temperatures rise.
Does that mean climate change caused Hurricane Sandy? No. Experts know that tropical Atlantic storms are normal this time of year. This one and its impacts were made unusually harsh by a number of converging factors: high tides, an Arctic weather system moving down from the north and a high-pressure system off Canada's East Coast that held the storm in place.
But most climate experts are certain the intensity of the storm and the massive damage it caused were in part related to changing global climate, attributed mainly to our habit of burning fossil fuels as quickly and inefficiently as possible. Global warming causes sea levels and ocean temperatures to rise, which results in more rainfall and leads to a higher likelihood of flooding in low-lying areas.
Scientists also believe this year's record Arctic sea-ice melt may have contributed to the high-pressure system that prevented Sandy from moving out to sea. In short, the storm and the unprecedented flooding and damage are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting.
Extreme weather events, including heat waves and drought, are no longer just model-based predictions, though. NASA scientist James Hansen, who sounded the alarm about climate change in 1988, recently wrote in the Washington Post,
"Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."
The damage that climate change is causing and that will get worse if we fail to act goes beyond the hundreds of thousands of lives, homes and businesses lost, ecosystems destroyed, species driven to extinction, infrastructure smashed and people inconvenienced. It will even devastate the one thing that many corporate and government leaders put above all else: that human creation we call the economy -- the very excuse many of our leaders use to block environmental protection and climate action.
According to Hansen, the Texas drought in 2011 alone caused $5 billion in damage. Repairing the damage from Sandy in the U.S. is expected to cost at least $50 billion. And as former World Bank economist Lord Stern has pointed out, slowing climate change will cost, but doing nothing will be cost far more.
And yet, in the U.S. presidential election, one candidate openly mocked climate science while the other all but ignored it. In Canada, our government's highest priority is to quickly extract and sell tar sands bitumen so that it can be burned up, mostly by China, which will further fuel global warming.
Some solutions are relatively simple and would provide economic benefits: implementing measures to conserve energy, putting a price on carbon through taxes and cap-and-trade and shifting from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources. Some may require a bit of sacrifice for people in the wealthiest parts of the world -- substantially cutting down on automobile use and air travel and shifting from rampant consumerism to a more conservative way of living, for example.
Much of this requires rethinking the ways we measure progress and govern our economies. That's what we've always done when our tools no longer fit our circumstances. But it's just not compatible with rapid tar sands expansion and governing for the sake of the fossil fuel industry.
Even the Conference Board of Canada says we can rapidly expand tar sands production or we can do something about global warming -- but not both. Thus, we see a mad rush to get the bitumen out of the ground and sell it quickly before it becomes economically unfeasible.
For the sake of our health, our children and grandchildren and even our economic well-being, we must make protecting the planet our top priority.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org. For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.
I suppose, at this point, the critical mass has been reached re a need 4 action on climate change. -- Twitter quote, 10/31/12
[Romney] ridiculed the president. Ridiculed the president for his efforts to fight global warming in economically beneficial ways... He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to turn back the seas.’ In my part of America, we would like it if someone could’ve done that yesterday. -- "Bill Clinton, Citing Sandy, Hits Romney On Climate Change", The Hill, 10/30/12
None of the debates did they mention climate change. And I feel like every six months the worst thing that's ever happened in the world happens weather-wise. And I feel like we're going to look back on this time the way baseball fans in the 90s were like, 'No, nobody's using steroids. We are in the steroid era of storms and yet there are more people in Congress who probably think this is because, like, gays are marrying, than the fact the the world is just dying. -- "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon", 10/30/12
Hurricane Sandy is a disturbing sign of things to come. We must heed this warning and act quickly to solve the climate crisis. Dirty energy makes dirty weather. -- Statement on Hurricane Sandy, 10/30/12
I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable. -- "Cuomo: 'Climate Change Is A Reality … We Are Vulnerable'", Salon, 10/31/12
This might be a good time for Obama to speak on climate change. -- Twitter status, 10/30/12
We badly need bipartisanship and collective effort not just to rebuild our infrastructure and solve problems like the jobs crisis but to address the root causes of what makes storms like this one so increasingly powerful and increasingly common. But our election season is drawing to a close without any serious discussion about climate change. -- "How Hurricane Sandy Downgraded The Election And Upgraded Our Barn-Raising Spirit", The Huffington Post, 10/30/12
In four and one-half hours of presidential debate, I don’t think global warming came up at all. That bothers me because I’ve got an 8-year-old son. What’s the world going to be like when he’s 65 years old? -- "There’s No Debate On Global Warming", Chicago Sun Times, 10/29/12
We`ve known this disaster was coming. For the one in five Americans who live somewhere on an American coast near the sea, weird weather and rising seas have been almost a scheduled nightmare. We knew this was coming. -- "The Rachel Maddow Show", 11/1/2012
Let's not bury our heads in the sand when it comes to -- something has changed in the Atlantic. The climate has changed. It's called climate change, folks. -- "Chuck Todd On Hurricane Sandy: 'It's Called Climate Change'", The Huffington Post, 10/31/2012
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