Hurricane Sandy stirs up climate change debate

Hurricane Sandy has caused an estimated $50 billion in damages throughout the East Coast, stopped electrical service to millions of people, killed over 100 people and provoked a new engagement with the topic of climate change in the news media.

The first significant outcome of the debate was New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of President Barack Obama in an editorial. In that article, the mayor noted that he sees climate change as “an urgent problem that threatens our planet,” and says that he wants a president who will “place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.” This was seen as a significant boon for the President as Bloomberg was previously unwilling to endorse either candidate. The implication of his statements is that Hurricane Sandy and events like it can be caused by or at least amplified by global climate change.

Scientists are being cautious about linking Sandy too closely to human-created climate change. Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contributed this statement: “In [Sandy’s] case, the immediate cause is most likely little more than a coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. As to underlying causes, neither the frequency of tropical nor extratropical cyclones over the North Atlantic are projected to appreciably change due to climate change, nor have there been indications of a change in their statistical behavior over this region in recent decades.”

A contesting claim was put forward by an article for Politico, simply entitled “Did climate change contribute to Sandy? Yes.” They agree that global warming is not a root cause for these kinds of storms happening, instead arguing that a warmer climate fuels more powerful and frequent storms. “We know that a warming climate puts more energy into storms, including hurricanes, loading them with more rainfall and stronger winds pushing more of a storm surge.”

This position is echoed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which recommends that world leaders prepare their citizens and enact policies that will help contain damage from what they predict will be increasingly strong weather events (Scientific American). Some are going so far as to call for the creation of a National Climate Service to create and enforce laws that will govern how communities prepare for powerful storms and to decrease human contribution to climate change in the form of CO₂ and other so-called “greenhouse gases.”

Others have cited the other climate-related events that have wracked the United States with record-breaking heat and droughts. Extreme dry conditions affected more than 37 percent of the contiguous United States (NOAA) and caused over half of the counties in the nation to be declared disaster areas by the United States Department of Agriculture. Activist Bill Mckibben links the two events and wrote, “This has been, this entire year, should be a serious wake-up call and the public’s beginning to get it” (Politico).

So far, most of the energy has been spent on immediate recovery. In the coming months and years, however, the debate over the scope and severity of the effects of global climate change will continue.