Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sandy and Climate Change

Mayor Bloomberg.
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There has been quite a lot of discussion around global climate change and Hurricane Sandy.  Mayor Bloomberg, for example, noted the role of climate change in the storm in his endorsement of President Obama last week as reported by the New York Times here.

After Sandy passed, when we were without power, I listened to a hand-crank radio to try to find updates on conditions in the area.  One of the stations I listened to was a sports station that switched from sports to taking calls from around the area to get updates on what was happening in the New York region.  One caller mentioned Bloomberg’s statement about climate change and the host countered by saying he does not “believe” in climate change.  He said he didn’t know enough about it and wasn’t comfortable with the idea that climate is changing.

I thought it was an honest answer, but one that seemed a bit odd given the mountain of evidence in the scientific community on global climate change.  There are thousands of scientific papers that document how the climate is changing and how it is impacting our planet.  The idea that one does not “believe” in climate change is akin to not believing in chemotherapy or wireless internet.  We trust our scientists and engineers to take care of our bodies and our technology.  However, a relatively large (but thankfully shrinking) number of people are hesitant to believe the scientific community on global climate change.  I find this so strange given the great deal of data.  Even one of the most vocal climate change denialists, Richard Muller, has now gotten on the climate change bandwagon.  Not "believing" in climate change infantilizes science and puts climate change on par with Santa Claus.  It would be much more honest to say that one doesn't know enough about it, or that one doesn't care if it is happening because it's a long-term process.

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I am not saying that Hurricane Sandy is a direct result of climate change.  It is but a single data point and climate is all about using multiple sources of data to understand long-term trends in weather patterns.  However, it is important to note that hurricane Sandy was a highly unusual event caused by the steering of high and low pressure systems that are geographically relatively rare during this time of year.  In addition, the changing Arctic and global sea temperatures changed the background conditions in which Sandy formed and moved.  While Sandy could have been a random event entirely unassociated with global climate change, it is worthwhile considering the alternate hypothesis.  The New York region is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and other changes associated with global climate change and it is important to have a discussion around the region’s ability to manage and adapt to changing climate conditions. 

(Aside:  For a review of the current state of U.S. climate change policy, you can read about it in a paper I wrote with Sandy Garren here.)

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