Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change


Though I am a long ways away from the East Coast, my little neck of the woods has been getting some of the battering of Hurricane Sandy. Apparently about a quarter million people in Ohio had their power knocked out, though this is nothing compared to NYC. I also received text messages about things shutting down in Philadelphia. In some ways this is surprising since Sandy was only at max a Category 2 hurricane, which is lower on the scale (Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5, the highest category, though it wasn’t at full power when it devastated New Orleans), but it is a very large storm.

And with such a large storm, there has been much a cry about how this relates to climate change. All over the Internet you can find stories about how this is the future because of anthropomorphic climate change. Only a fraction of the stories I have linked to discuss the topic. First, a point of order. One storm does not make climate, in the same way one cold day in summer doesn’t make global warming a farce. So anyone claiming that this hurricane proves climate change (yet somehow the other hurricanes in the past for decades don’t?), then they are being ignorant.

However, most are not making that claim. The science on climate change is in; it is real, and is caused primarily by humans, and the effects could be very significant. And the reason to point to events like Sandy and Katrina is that they are examples of what sorts of weather we can expect to see if the atmosphere becomes warmer. A warmer atmosphere will be more turbulent, hold more moisture, and be all-around hotter. That means we can have more powerful storms dumping more water.

What’s the exact connect between hurricanes and climate change? As I understand it, it doesn’t mean more hurricanes, but that those that develop will be stronger and more devastating. So perhaps we’ll have 5 to 10 hurricanes in a year, but more and more will be Sandy or Katrina-level. Moreover, with warmer oceans, we could expect more large storms to head up the coast, meaning more such storms to hit cities like New York, Boston, Washington DC, and so on. That means huge dollars in damage.

So really, pointing to storms like Sandy shouldn’t be just about climate but about economics. Can we have storms like this every couple of years hitting the most valuable places in the country, not to mention mess up billions in transactions as banks and markets close? Combine that with fires out west, drought conditions hurting farms and causing food prices to soar, and more damages that his pocket books. I don’t know how to properly estimate the costs of climate change, but examples like Sandy will show more and more that the cost of letting things work itself out–that the negative effects are less than the effects of government intervention–are too high to bear.

But I don’t know how much that will get through to some running for office who think even federal emergency efforts are “immoral” and the private sector is the best thing to help such problems (when practices in the private sector are making the problem worse). And that makes sense; I mean, no one in NYC is going to complain about how their insurance will find some loophole to not pay for damages. It’s not like a profit margin will incentive minimizing paying out to those effected will charging as much as possible in the scarcity forced by the storm conditions. Social contracts? What’s that?!?

(At least one of the few people in the GOP that believes in climate change is in a state affected by the storm so he can say something productive. And he seems to be working productively with the President.)

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