Could Hurricane Sandy Shift the Debate on Climate Change?

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Ben Cohen
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By Ben Cohen: Watching Manhattan literally go under water reminded me of something Noam Chomsky talked about in a lecture several years ago in regards to the effects of climate change. I can't locate the lecture itself, but Chomsky stated that climate change would only come to the forefront of political debate if the wealthy and powerful were directly affected by it. The MIT professor used the flooding of Manhattan as an illustration stating it would take something of that magnitude for the powerful to understand exactly how grave the threat from climate change really is.

Sadly, we're seeing that scene play out live on our television screens - and in the case of New Yorkers and residents of other areas affected by Hurricane Sandy - it's happening on their doorsteps.

The link between global warming and the increasing intensity of hurricanes is well documented, and as Mark Fischetti in the Scientific American explains, it isn't really up for debate in scientific circles any more. He writes:

More [scientists] are starting to drop the caveat and link climate change directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events, such as the warm 2012 winter in the eastern U.S. and the frigid one in Europe at the same time. They are emboldened because researchers have gotten very good in the past decade at determining what affects the variables that create big storms. Hurricane Sandy got large because it wandered north along the U.S. coast, where ocean water is still warm this time of year, pumping energy into the swirling system. But it got even larger when a cold Jet Stream made a sharp dip southward from Canada down into the eastern U.S. The cold air, positioned against warm Atlantic air, added energy to the atmosphere and therefore to Sandy, just as it moved into that region, expanding the storm even further.

Here’s where climate change comes in. The atmospheric pattern that sent the Jet Stream south is colloquially known as a “blocking high”—a big pressure center stuck over the very northern Atlantic Ocean and southern Arctic Ocean. And what led to that? A climate phenomenon called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)—essentially, the state of atmospheric pressure in that region. This state can be positive or negative, and it had changed from positive to negative two weeks before Sandy arrived. The climate kicker? Recent research by Charles Greene at Cornell University and other climate scientists has shown that as more Arctic sea ice melts in the summer—because of global warming—the NAO is more likely  to be negative during the autumn and winter. A negative NAO makes the Jet Stream more likely to move in a big, wavy pattern across the U.S., Canada and the Atlantic, causing the kind of big southward dip that occurred during Sandy.

The notion that an economy built on consumption and unlimited growth has no impact on our ecological systems has long been discredited by science, and the climate change movement has been based on airtight calculations that prove conclusively that we are headed towards a massive disaster if it is left unchecked. The powerful corporations that operate on the theory that people can go on consuming forever have spent decades fighting this science and have created so much confusion around the issue that only 34% of Americans believe climate change is a result of human activity.

The gravity of the global economic crisis has pushed the issue further away from headline news, but the argument is getting harder and harder to sustain as record heat waves, billions of dollars lost due to dwindling crops, and increasingly ferocious hurricanes are seeping in to the public conscience as the consequences become ever more severe.

It's hard to take any positives from the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy, but the flooding of Manhattan could represent something new in the battle to make climate change the issue of the day. New York City represents American wealth and power more dramatically than any other city in the country. It is the financial, creative and cultural capital of America, and in some ways, the world. It has survived colossal crime waves, terrorist attacks, and financial disaster and still retains its feisty character and exuberant attitude to life.  New York is a city like no other, and to watch it humbled by nature truly is a sight to behold. No doubt NYC will recover, but the images of its depopulated streets filled with water and the epic destruction to its infrastructure will be hard to erase. Rich and powerful people live in New York City, and they will have felt the brunt of global warming first hand. When it comes to taking it seriously as a political issue, perhaps the close encounter will finally force the privileged to not only demand action from politicians, but take it themselves.

It's too early to gauge the full political implications of the destruction to NYC, given we still don't know the physical implications. But they will be big and it could finally force Washington to act.