After Hurricane Sandy, you would think US politicians would realize that the problem is not a freak of nature; such extreme weather is exactly what meteorological models have been predicting would be the impact of climate change.
Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, tweeted on October 29: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.” Mark Fischetti of Scientific American explains why this is so. “Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.”
Making a direct link between Hurricane Sandy and climate change is tricky, because weather in variable and extreme events occur from time-to-time. Dr. Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office Hadley Centre, explains why climatologists are pedestrian in their predictions:
Unusual or extreme weather events are of great public concern and interest, yet here are often conflicting messages from scientists about whether such events can be linked to climate change. While it is clear that across the globe there has been an increase in the frequency of extreme heatwaves and of episodes of heavy rainfall, this does not mean that human-induced climate change is to blame for every instance of such damaging weather. However climate change could be changing the odds and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is doing so in such a way as to increase the chances of extremely warm temperatures and reduce the chances of extremely cold temperatures in many places.
Nevertheless, climatologists are saying that the frequency of such events is increasing as a result of global warming. What is the evidence?
We need only to look at what the German reinsurance company, Munich Re has to say. In its report, Severe Weather in North America, the authors provide evidence that find “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.” Munich Re found “a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades”, with losses totaling $1.06 trillion. Human-caused climate change “is believed to contribute to this trend,” the report concluded, “though it influences various perils in different ways.”
There were a variety of causes: tropical cyclones, thunderstorms, winter storms, tornados, heat-waves, wildfires, droughts and floods. The report observed “The view that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense in various regions due to global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings”.
Not only can such events be measured in human misery, but they threaten the very basis of the capitalist system. If insurance companies raise premiums, many businesses will become uneconomic. This explains why insurance companies are pushing for urgent action on climate change. As Tony Kuczinski, CEO of Munich Reinsurance America warns: “What is clearly evident when the long-term data is reviewed is that losses from weather events are trending upward.”
The US is not the only country that is suffering from extreme weather events. During the past decade, we’ve also seen severe droughts in places like Australia and Russia, as well as in East Africa where twelve million people are facing food shortages. In 2003, a heatwave in Europe killed perhaps 70,000 people. In 2005, nearly three feet of rain fell in Mumbai, India over a period of 24 hours, killing more than 1,000 people and causing widespread damage. In 2008, Myanmar was hit with a Category 3 cyclone, which killed 138,000 people.
Globally, if you consider the number of severe events, the trend is obvious. There were 70 during the 1990s compared to 44 in the 1980s and 29 in the 1970s.
Added to these sad statistics is the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. There were at least 40 deaths in the US and another 71 over the Caribbean region. Damage is estimated to easily top $50 billion. Eight million homes lost power, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated, more than 15,000 flights were grounded and power was out for days.
As extreme weather events become the new norm, the costs of climate change will increase. The question is how many more of these events need to happen before politicians start to realize that continued inaction is not an option.