Superstorm Sandy is over and we on the dazed East Coast are left to clean up. The waters are receding and, for those of us not directly hit, the memories will fade as the weeks go by. But in this window when we’re still discovering the incredible extent of its damage and our justified fears are fresh, I want to capture a few of the things Sandy offered up that I think are worth learning from this storm.
Hurricane Sandy has done unbelievable harm.
- As of today, more than 160 people have died in the U.S., the Caribbean. and Canada. In New York we learn of the loss of a Little League star, a baby, friends walking the dog. The heartbreak is vast.
- Our cities and towns are damaged and dark, some are devastated: a figure of $30-50 billion in economic losses is in the news, and nearly 4 million people are still without power.
Sandy is something we’ve never seen before, and makes us question what we know about how our world works and how safe we are in it.
- Sandy was bigger, in some ways stronger, and well outside our experience.
- I trust that millions like me, following the unfolding storm, experienced surreal moments when a true understanding of the approaching danger – e.g., its growing storm surge – crystallized and pushed aside old ideas about what can and cannot happen to us.
There is neither a bright line connecting this storm to our changing climate, nor the absence of a connection.
- Sandy was created in a warming atmosphere – warming due primarily to human emissions of greenhouse gases. There are strong links between climate change and several kinds of extreme events (heat waves, drought, extreme precipitation), but when it comes to hurricanes, it’s complicated.
- But we can recognize that the blows Sandy dealt are the kind that scientists tell us we can expect with climate change. This storm provides an opportunity to see our weaknesses and to better prepare for changes we can’t avoid.
Sea level rise provided Sandy with extra ocean water with which to harm our coasts.
- Rising sea levels, driven by warming oceans and melting land-based ice, gave Sandy more water to drive onto our shores and further inland.
- Global sea level is rising and at an accelerating rate. And, unfortunately for the Northeast U.S., sea levels are rising even faster along this coast than the global average.
Sandy tested our “fitness” as a society for the 21st century and in important ways we failed.
- Our cities and towns, our infrastructure, whole sectors of our economy were built by generations past for their climate. We don’t live in that climate anymore.
- This past summer most of the country took a test on coping with extreme heat and drought, which many regions and sectors – from energy to agriculture – failed. Before that Irene gave the Northeast a test on preparedness for extreme precipitation and flooding, and an October snowstorm tested the resilience of the region’s electricity grid. How many tests have U.S. regions taken in just the last two years’ worth of extreme weather? How many have we passed? And what does that portend for a future where the tests only get harder?
- Sandy, our latest test, asked whether major cities and heavily populated coasts were prepared for a big storm on top of today’s elevated sea level. Our answer is no.
- Sandy’s tidal timing was terrible (overlapping with a full moon and the associated extra-high high tides, and lingering through several tide cycles) but the odds of facing these kind of tides during a storm strike are not. The Northeast U.S. is a populous region heavily concentrated along the coast. We need to be able to handle storms on any given day – especially as rising seas make tides higher still.
- Sandy drove hard against our infrastructure and critical pieces gave way. Key leaders, like New York’s Governor Cuomo, have been outspoken in recent days about the need to acknowledge this weakness, saying things like “the infrastructure in place along the East Coast cannot withstand the changing climate.”
We’ve got to get ready.
- Our clean up and recovery should segue into preparedness and building resilience to the next storm. Adaptation is now a critical part of our successful future.
- We have little to lose and lots to gain by heeding the warning from Sandy and other extreme events. We better equip our communities and critical infrastructure to withstand and rebound from strikes like this. And we break our fossil fuel habit for a clean, independent energy future. Yes, this requires investment. But by contrast, how many crippling impacts are we willing to live through and pay for over time?
We’ve got to be honest with each other about what we’re seeing and what it means.
- This storm reminds us of the essential value of science – not least the science behind what we’re seeing – and demands that we reject efforts to sow doubt about the reality and risk of climate change.
- It reminds us that the eradication of climate from political discourse in the U.S. has done the whole world a disservice and lost us precious time. Hats off to Mayor Bloomberg for challenging us to see Sandy through the climate lens and be serious problem solvers.
- It reminds us how much we care about others, about strangers, and how deeply we want to keep one another safe.
- And it reminds us that there’s a lot riding on us. As David Roberts tweeted during the storm “the Prime Directive in the 21st century is: Be a good ancestor.” Our choices each day shape the future. Whether we’re shaping a future that people we love can cope with is a question that hangs in the air.
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