Hurricane Sandy is a cruel teacher, but she's about to accomplish what decades of scientific research have failed to do: Persuade the public that climate change is a real and serious problem, and motivate the transition to distributed power generation and backup.
The global climate is an enormous, and enormously complex, system. Modeling it with absolute precision is beyond the reach of contemporary science. At best, it consists of a range of probabilities for things like extreme weather events, water levels, and the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. But probabilities fail to motivate humans to take action. As long as there's a chance of not having to do anything we don't want to do, we're generally willing to throw the dice. Anyone who stands to lose from energy transition, like utilities and fossil fuel producers, can use the uncertainty, however small, to stymie progress. And a public that is insufficiently literate in the complexity of the science is easily persuaded to ignore the problem entirely if just one contradicting point can be mustered and blown out of proportion.
In short: We suck at dealing with complex, long-range problems, particularly if we don't experience them personally. If it isn't happening right now, to us, it doesn't seem like it's happening at all. We struggle to recognize what applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman has termed mesofacts -- facts that change slowly. Our schools don't teach us about them. Our corporate and government systems are blind to them. And, as I detailed a few months ago, we tend to think and act in a knee-jerk, tribal fashion. In important ways, that's literally how we are wired.
Exploiting these human tendencies has been easy for those who would halt action on climate change. Get one senator to repeat that climate change is a hoax -- in the face of mountains of evidence that it's all too real, and despite the lack of any evidence of actual hoaxing or hoaxers -- and you're halfway there. Make a mockery of a few key individuals and trash their reputations, buy some Congressmen and academics, drop a few hundred million dollars into think tanks and lobbying firms and ad agencies, convince people that doing anything will be scary and expensive, and you're home.
It all works beautifully until people get slapped in the face with the reality, hard. Then, suddenly, they begin to get a lot more interested in facts and solutions than glib denials and propaganda campaigns.
We don't yet know what the total damage will be, but we know the bill is going to be hefty. Millions of people are without power, clean water, transportation, and other essential services, and could remain so for a week or longer. It seems likely that Sandy will go do down as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
We need not be able to say with complete certainty that climate change directly caused Hurricane Sandy, or that carbon emissions are the original culprit. It's enough to know that such disastrous storms are becoming more likely.
The new Voldemort
It's not like we haven't known that the climate was changing, and that this could cause stronger and more frequent hurricanes.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, told Amy Goodman on Monday, "There’s been ample evidence over the last decade or so that hurricane season is getting longer — starts earlier, ends later," and that the warming of the oceans directly increases the winds of hurricanes. Then he put a finer point on it:
Climate change has become the new Voldemort of our times, that which cannot be named. And it’s ridiculous that we can’t talk about a subject that’s directly influencing our lives now and will continue to do so even more strongly in the future. I see superstorm Sandy here as kind of a wake-up call coming the week before the election. "Hey, America, hey, politicians, pay attention to this." We’re experiencing an unusual number of very rare meteorological events, and they’re probably not all due to just random variations in the weather. We do expect extreme events of this nature to increase in the future, and we should be paying attention to the fact that we’ve had a very large number of these billion-dollar sorts of disasters in recent years.
Heavy rainfall events are also increasing. The "100-year flood" ain't what it used to be. In a 2008 post, Masters rounded up recent research on the risk of flooding due to climate change, including a 2002 study by Milly et al. which found that great floods have occurred more often in recent decades:
In the past century, the world's 29 largest river basins experienced a total of 21 "100-year floods" -- the type of flood one would expect only once per 100 years in a given river basin. Of these 21 floods, 16 occurred in the last half of the century (after 1953). With the IPCC predicting that heavy precipitation events are very likely to continue to increase, it would be no surprise to see flooding worsen globally in the coming decades.
Climate researchers and groups like the IPCC aren't the only ones who are worried. Global reinsurance companies have issued numerous dire warnings in recent years. And well they should: The New York Times reported Monday that insurance claims from Sandy are expected to range from $10 - $20 billion, with newer estimates running much higher.
For example, a joint 2009 publication by Swiss Re and various foundations warned that the window of opportunity for adaptation was closing, and that beyond 2030, climate change "could be so disruptive that we will face major losses that cannot be averted." Country by country, it detailed potential losses in the hundreds of billions, and cited a UNFCCC estimate that by 2030 the world will be spending $36 - $135 billion a year to cope with the impacts.
For another, Munich Re issued a study a few weeks ago entitled "Severe Weather in North America," which noted that weather-related losses have quintupled in the last 30 years, and said that climate change was a principal reason.
Another recent report backs up the notion. Published in the September 11 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it found that the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons has risen in the past 30 years, and that "extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small."
Another PNAS paper published in August found that damaging Atlantic cyclones are correlated with warmer sea temperatures, and that the frequency of Atlantic hurricane surge events has been increasing since 1923. By the end of this century, the researchers predict that there will be 9.5 tidal surges each year owing to Atlantic cyclones and hurricanes -- nearly twice the incidence in 1923.
A 2008 paper from the U.S. National Intelligence Council even specifically detailed an "October Surprise" scenario, in which "New York City is hit by a major hurricane linked to global climate change. . ."
And so on, and so on.
The point is: None of this is really new information. A storm like Sandy would not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the science, instead of the politics. As New York Governor Cuomo tweeted on Tuesday, "anyone who says there hasn't been a dramatic change in weather patterns is in denial."
Politics run amok
The problem, of course, is that almost no one actually studies climate research unless their jobs demand it. Having spent hundreds of hours reading such studies over the years, I know why: they're difficult, un-fun, and they deal with probabilities, not certainties.
Instead, most people simply repeat what their political tribes tell them, unaware and uncaring of how wrong those claims might be, or whose motivations they might serve. Madness ensues.
That's how North Carolina got to the point of proposing legislation that would redefine sea-level rise, effectively enshrining climate change denial into law.
That's how Mitt Romney wound up mocking rising ocean levels at the GOP convention, and mocking the idea that we need more police and fire personnel, calling federal spending on disaster relief "immoral."
That's how climate change came to be entirely absent from the longest and most-covered election in history. And why Romney's pledge to shut down FEMA now sounds insane. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," may make good ideological politics, but in a disaster of this magnitude, who isn't grateful for the federal safety net? Who really thinks that every state could be equipped to deal with something like this on their own -- particularly the less prosperous ones?
Spending a few hundred million dollars more on weather satellites will look like a bargain instead of a bargaining chip, as it was last year when the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration called the cuts to her budget a "disaster." "Because we have insufficient funds in the [fiscal] '11 budget, we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today," she warned.
Satellite technology and hurricane forecasting tools were essential to anticipating Sandy's path several days in advance, allowing crucial time to evacuate threatened areas, position emergency response assets, and save countless lives. As Brad Plumer pointed out in the Washington Post, hurricane forecasting has improved enormously in the past few decades, but it takes federal funding to maintain things like satellites, NOAA, and the National Weather Service. We're only beginning to appreciate how badly we need them, and de-funding them over an ideologically extreme position on climate change and the role of the federal government isn't going to wash with a traumatized people.
A teachable moment
When this is all over and the reckoning begins, it's going to be as hard to find a climate change denier in the wreckage as it is to find an atheist in a foxhole. And so we will arrive at yet another "teachable moment." The question is: Will we learn this time?
I think we will. And this time, the prescriptions will sound eminently sensible.
First and foremost, the wisdom of distributed power supply will be plainly evident, as businesses and residences with backup power blaze on through the power outages. When the rebuilding begins, residents should be inquiring about installing some solar power and battery backup on their homes, and businesses equipped with natural gas lines should be looking into fuel cells.
Micro-grids, a strategy I've been banging on about for years, should finally get the attention of city planners and administrators whose municipalities are now without power. With good planning and modest investment -- particularly compared to the losses they're realizing from outages -- there is no reason why most communities can't keep critical electrical loads running when the big grid goes down. We should also see a renewed commitment to building a smarter, more robust power grid, including burying overhead power distribution lines.
More broadly, the notion that we should not take action on climate change until our global competitors (namely, China) do will seem silly. As indeed it is. That's like sitting in a sinking boat and refusing to bail water until everybody else in the boat does. Only this time, I hope that we'll get focus right and concentrate on building renewable energy capacity instead of trying to capture, sequester, cap, or trade emissions from fossil fuel plants. . . a strategy that has gotten us nowhere, and prompted vested interests to mount an anti-climate change campaign.
Self-contained emergency response units with power generation, cell towers, and water purification capabilities should also finally find buyers. I've seen several designs offered to the market since Hurricane Katrina, in nifty hardened boxes that can be pulled like a trailer or dropped from a helicopter, but none of them really seemed to take off. On Monday night, the New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service tweeted that NYPD cell phone batteries and radios were dying, and cell sites were down and overloaded. This problem has a cure, and again it's very reasonably priced. Perhaps now municipal governments and the National Guard will invest in some of these units.
Transportation should also get a fresh look, with an eye toward resiliency. Trains, while not immune to storm damage, can often run when airplanes can't. Well-planned emergency ground transportation routes with strategic fuel dumps can get people and goods moving again long before all the gasoline stations are restocked and all the roads are cleared.
I hope that this moment will inspire entrepreneurs and investors to forget about creating the next Zynga or Facebook, and start thinking about creating more resilient infrastructure for the real world.
I hope it will remind all of us how crucial our shared, taxpayer-funded services are, and how we are really all in this together, red and blue states alike.
And I hope it will finally put an end to the game of climate change denial. Play time is over. It's time to get serious about protecting ourselves, and preparing for a much more disaster-prone future.
Photo: Hurricane Sandy destroying the Atlantic City boardwalk uptown on Monday, courtesy hoeboma/Instagram