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Sandy’s Punch Proves Truth Will Out

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Sometimes it’s really difficult to accept that we’re still evolving. In the far distant past, our ancient ancestors could look about them and observe the planets and the stars and the tides. They would experience flood and drought and watch for signs of impending disasters. They might believe that the disasters were caused by angry gods, and their strategies for avoiding calamity may have been limited by their belief systems. Nevertheless, they were guided at least, in part, by what their eyes and senses told them, and relied on their powers of observation to predict what would happen.

Thankfully, as the world has grown more complex, we’ve developed scientific tools to help us precisely observe changes in our environment and project what those changes may look like in the future.

In many parts of the country, elected officials are happy to make decisions grounded in science.

For example, some communities realize the threat of rising sea levels and are slowly taking the necessary steps to adapt and protect their communities. Take south Florida. Sea levels rose 8-9 inches over the last 100 years. If Sandy had hit Florida, dozens of cities would have flooded.

Image of Hurricane Sandy from a NASA satellite

Advances in satellite technology have allowed us to forecast storms such as Sandy days before they make landfall. Photo: NASA Flickr

Four counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Palm Beach — formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in 2009 to help mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change. In early October the four-county compact released its Regional Climate Action Plan (RCAP), to address the consequences of rising sea levels, among other issues.

In other parts of the country, some elected officials seem bent on limiting what their eyes can see and their minds may be able to measure.

Last year the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality censored a scientific study on sea level in Galveston Bay — based on years of peer-reviewed research — that concluded that levels were rising much faster than in the past.  Somehow, just acknowledging that change became politically controversial, as if not noticing rising sea levels would make them go away.  It was only after outrage from academics and scolding from many of the state’s editorial writers that the Commission backed off and let the  passages about sea level rise and climate change linked to human activities remain in the final version of the report.

North Carolina sea level rise estimates

The red areas are the most vulnerable parts of North Carolina due to the estimated sea level rise. Photo: USFWS

In North Carolina, as my colleague Michael Halpern wrote last summer, some legislators seemed to believe that if you pass a law that bans the gathering of information, the laws themselves will alter the reality. Don’t utter the words ‘sea level rise” and bingo! – The coasts are intact and protected.

The North Carolina legislature considered passing a law that would have required its Coastal Resources Commission to consider only historic data, and excluded any new evidence of rapidly rising sea levels, when regulating coastal development. The legislature ended up approving a weaker version of the bill that still delays any action to address science-based sea level evaluations for at least four years. Actually, the legislation was driven not by a naïve belief in the power of words, but a money-driven conviction that any hint that sea levels were going higher would discourage development, and thus cause a reduction in the level of real estate developers’ incomes.

Ironically, the North Carolina State House sits just a few blocks from a world-class natural history museum that lays out the stark realities of rising sea levels for the state.

My home state, Virginia, is not immune from this behavior. State delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach referred to “sea level rise” as a “left-wing term.” But he was okay with a study that looked at “recurrent flooding.”

When elected officials fail to face the facts and deny the science underlying that reality, they delay, and perhaps permanently block, the best means to help their communities cope with future weather events and other natural disasters.

These examples would be funny if all they did was provide grist for late-night comedy shows. But here’s the problem: Softening the language or changing the words we use can often obscure what the problem actually is.

One would hope that the dramatic impact of Hurricane Sandy might help these information censors see the folly of their ways. Whether you accept it or not, a mass of water will make you wet and likely will do something pretty drastic to your coastlines.

It’s hard enough changing the way we think about floods without the distraction of these word games. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as stellar as it was in responding to Hurricane Sandy, is falling down on the job when it comes to preparing for future severe weather. As Juliet Eilperin reported recently in The Washington Post, FEMA continues to use only historic data when planning for future floods. Floods are coming more frequently, and doing more damage.  FEMA’s maps must be revised to account for human-caused climate change.

Yes, the word is climate change. You might be able to kick it out of the political lexicon, but that won’t stop its terrible toll.

President Barack Obama and Governor Chris Christie

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy first-hand. We need to ask all of our elected officials to look at the science and make responsible policy decisions to prepare for the changing climate. Photo: White House

And there has been a toll. People who survived Hurricane Sandy are suffering. New Jersey’s coastal communities were not wiped out by a “left-wing term” but by a very real and angry sea that was higher than it used to be because of climate change. Not only did they lose their homes, but in some cases, they face a long-term loss of infrastructure. The water smashed bridges, downed power lines, and seeped into natural gas pipelines, causing months-long displacement for thousands of people.

This is something the rest of the country can see with its own eyes. We can only hope that the havoc raised by Hurricane Sandy changes minds and helps everyone understand that facts are not political, nor are they the enemy. When it comes to predicting and preparing for the future, facts can be, in the truest sense of the word, our best and most powerful friends.

UCS legislative assistant Yogin Kothari assisted in the research for this post. 

Posted in: Global Warming, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the author: Celia Wexler is a senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS. A former award-winning journalist, Wexler is the author of Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis, published in 2012 by McFarland. At UCS, Wexler’s issue portfolio includes food and drug safety, protections for scientist whistleblowers, and government transparency and accountability. See Celia's full bio.

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One Response

  1. The science I am seeing in these blogs is true and disturbing. The wrong-headed thinking of those who deny the existence of climate change and the dangers it poses is far more frightening. Having just watched Ken Burns’s film about the Dust Bowl years, I fear that we are headed that way again, but on a far grander scale. We must work on what we can do to get the truth out there where it can be obvious to “the meanest intelligence,” and even to the most short-sighted, self-interested, and greedy. I wish us luck.