Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Change Debate

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy: CISSSM/University of Wisconsin

In comments Tuesday, while discussing the high-powered destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo went into territory mostly avoided by U.S. politicians these days. To quote: "There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement … Anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality."

Okay, he said "dramatic change" rather than "climate change" but there's no missing the point. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised the possibility a little more directly: "the storms we've experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before. Whether that's global warming or what, I don't know, but we'll have to address those issues." Although of course, he added in the "or what" qualifier.

But I'm not carping. We need our politicians to raise this issue, to ask these questions (and not just in the context of massive hurricanes) because we need to stress how important this is.  And we should still want the discussion that acknowledges all the complexities and nuances of this complicated – and important – story of climate, atmosphere, ocean, and the way that we are altering those systems. And the best science reporting on the connection between big hurricanes and human-influenced climate change reaches for exactly that balance.

For instance, at Boing Boing, science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote an elegant analysis, which looks at everything from historic storm trends to specific weather patterns that helped amplify Sandy,  "Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? The answer depends on why you're asking."

At the Los Angeles Times, Neela Bannerjee reminds readers that the issue is not that climate change somehow "creates" a big hurricane but that research models indicate that it produces factors that can amplifty the storm system.

Chris Mooney, at Climate Desk, asks "Was Sandy supersized by climate change?" (posted here at The Guardian) reviews factors that might fuel a big storm, such as increased moisture in the atmosphere, and notes: "There's no doubt that global warming has raised the sea level, meaning that every hurricane—including Sandy—surfs atop a higher ocean and can penetrate further inland."

Emily Chertoff at The Atlantic took the same, smart let's-ask-the question approach: The Sandy Storm Surge: Is This What Climate Change Will Look Like?"

At Technology Review, Kevin Bullis explained that "Climate Change Likely Makes Storms Like Sandy Worse." (Italics are mine)

At Dot Earth, Andy Revkin posted a several detailed looks at the question, my favorite being a discussion between Revkin and Dan Miller, a venture capitalist who has focused on climate concerns, which allows us to follow a very educated argument between two people who both agree that this matters.

And at Columbia Journalism Review, Curtis Brainard wrote a pitch-perfect story about the way we cover storms and climate change in the midst of political wrangling over the subject. It's titled "Sandy's climate context" and it's subtitle is "Why generalizing about extreme weather helps no one."

Environmentalists have complained that there's not enough discussion of the issue, that there's not enough acknowledgment of the contribution of climate change to storms like this. And they may have a point. But this small sample (and the many stories that I didn't mention) should serve as a reassuring reminder that we are  starting to see one of our biggest environmental issues become a critical part of the storm news cycle.

                                                                                                                                                              — Deborah Blum


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