Did global warming cause Hurricane Sandy?
To government officials grappling with Sandy’s destruction and wondering how best to prepare for future extreme-weather events, the answer to that question does not matter.
At a press conference on Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted the urgency of protecting the Big Apple from extreme weather events, but he didn’t use the phrases "climate change" or "global warming."
“There have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement,” said Cuomo, a Democrat. “Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality.”
He went so far as to suggest that New York City may install levees, after some of the city’s lowest points saw record-high flood tides of 13 feet during the height of Sandy’s wrath on Monday night. “It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about,” Cuomo said, according to The New York Times. “The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level. The flooding in downtown Manhattan was really extraordinary and unlike anything I had seen.”
Cuomo’s concerns about extreme weather are shared by members of Congress. Cynthia McHale, who directs the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit organization made up of investors committed to sustainability, said a group of Democratic senators are working on legislation for “resiliency planning” that addresses damage caused by extreme weather events.
“We are aware of pending legislation at the federal level around resiliency planning and planning for extreme weather events,” said McHale, whose group works with New York City, San Diego, Seattle, and other cities on these issues. “But they’re taking the phrase 'climate change' out of the discussion.” McHale didn’t say which senators were involved in the effort, but Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Kerry was “having conversations with other members about possible legislation.”
Whether or not you think climate change causes extreme weather, the consensus is growing that the government should do more to protect against extreme weather like what the United States saw this summer in the form of heat waves, drought, and the rare “super derecho” storm that knocked out power to almost 5 million people on the East Coast in late June.
“Being more resilient and less vulnerable helps you be better off regardless of what the future throws at you and regardless of the cause,” said Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado whose views on climate change and extreme weather have been supported by vocal climate-change skeptic websites like ClimateDepot.com and the office of Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., Washington’s loudest climate skeptic.
Pielke, who does acknowledge that humans’ consumption of fossil fuels is causing the Earth to get warmer, says the scientific cause-and-effect connection between climate change and extreme weather like hurricanes and climate cannot be made—at least not yet.
“The answer right now is, no, we don’t see that signal,” Pielke said. “Yes, we expect to be able to see it sometime in the future. In the meantime, we have to become more resilient to climate and talk about energy policy.”
McHale at Ceres notes that while there may not be a scientific consensus on the connection between climate change and extreme weather, enough information is available for insurance companies to plan.
“We can build reasonable scenarios about the impact of global warming on weather patterns to make decisions around adaptation planning,” McHale said.
McHale noted the explicit mention of climate change in a recent webinar hosted by A.M. Best, one of the world’s leading insurance companies, as a compelling sign that the broader business community is realizing both the near- and long-term impacts of global warming.
“Growing populations and higher densities in areas of the United States prone to severe weather, coupled with a potential shift in the risk landscape due to climate change, have been contributing to a rise in insured loss tabs, according to a panel of experts,” wrote Michael Buck, a senior associate editor at A.M. Best, in an Oct. 17 statement following the webinar.
Eli Lehrer, president of the conservative think tank R Street Institute, said insurance companies planning for climate change helped cement his view that human-caused global warming is real.
“It’s quite true that every sizable insurance company implicitly or explicitly thinks about climate change and incorporates it as a risk factor and that’s a very strong market signal that it’s a real problem,” said Lehrer, who works closely with major insurance companies and who until this spring worked at the libertarian Heartland Institute, a group at the forefront of the movement to undermine climate science. Lehrer left the group after it ran a series of billboard ads featuring Ted Kaczynski (better known as the Unabomber) with the words, “Do you still believe in global warming? I do.”
Lehrer said people who doubt human-caused climate change is real are undermined by the insurers’ actions: “Insurance companies want to make money, they make money by assessing risk accurately, and if it were a fraud and a hoax they wouldn’t do this, because they wouldn’t make money.”
Taking action to address extreme weather events doesn’t get at the other—and much harder—part of the global-warming problem: curbing global use of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases.
The window to make a sizable dent on this side of the problem is shrinking. The International Energy Agency released a report earlier this year finding that unless major countries take “stringent new action” by 2017, the Earth will warm by 3.5 to 6 degrees Celsius—surpassing the 2-degree mark the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns is the uppermost increase in temperature the planet can handle before environmental damage will be irreversible.