Economics for the Earth Blog

Carbon doping: Hurricane Sandy is climate on steroids

Posted Nov. 2, 2012 / Posted by: Michal Rosenoer

Hurricane Sandy tore through more than just the eastern states this past week; the power of the megastorm is also forcing the media and candidates to break their silence on climate change. Hurricane Sandy is the latest tragedy on the long list of 2012’s weather anomalies, and Bloomberg Businessweek put it best (on their cover) when they said, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Sandy is what you get when you put the climate on steroids. Sluggers are likely to hit a homerun every once in a while without steroids, but while doping, can knock one out of the park almost every time up to the plate. Even though freak hurricanes such as Sandy happen naturally somewhere every ten years or so, climate change is increasing the frequency of freak weather events, making them the norm rather than the exception.

In the last year alone, the U.S. suffered through a string of record-breaking weather events that put it in line to outrank 2011 as the year with the most billion-dollar natural disasters. The natural disasters this year were all clearly exacerbated by climate change, including the hottest July ever on record, the worst drought since the Dustbowl, and a wildfire season rivaling the worst season ever, a record set just six years ago. Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, recently wrote that “overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is heating the planet, shrinking the Arctic ice cap, melting glaciers, and raising sea levels…It’s leading to more widespread drought, more frequent heat waves, and more powerful hurricanes.” And it’s only getting worse. “Over the past year, we’ve seen…records broken at ten times the rate you would expect from chance alone,” Mann said in an interview with StateImpact.

As carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases change the chemical composition of the atmosphere, they increase heat-trapping of the sun’s energy and warm the planet. In turn, this warming has been definitively linked to three events (of many, many more) that exacerbate freak weather like Hurricane Sandy, including sea level rise, higher sea water temperature, and melting arctic ice.  

Recent research shows that on average, sea levels have risen by about seven inches in the last hundred years because of climate change. While the warmer, wetter atmosphere loads storms with more energy and rain, surges are riding almost a foot higher due to global warming. As sea levels continue to rise, the damage from storm surges like those seen in Sandy will be increasingly severe. As Kate Sheppard reported in Mother Jones, that means more heartache and destruction for families and businesses around the country in coming years:

“In the US, we have 4,514 miles of shoreline -- 20 percent our total miles of coastline -- that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. That includes 82 percent of Virginia’s coast. You can see what that means for storm surges with this great map that Climate Central created.”

Moreover, warmer sea temperatures act as “jet fuel” for storms, says Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “Hurricanes get their power, or their energy, from warm ocean waters,” Hayhoe says. “So when any given hurricane comes along, on average there’s warmer water than there would have been otherwise…which gives it more energy and gives it more strength,” Hayhoe recently stated.

Sandy makes landfall [NASA]Arctic sea ice also experienced yet another record-smashing melt this year, which means there’s more dark water in the oceans absorbing heat and less white ice reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. This shift breaks down the “arctic refrigerator,” which in turns means hotter summers and more extreme weather around the globe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a full 75 percent of the arctic sea ice has vanished in the past 20 years, and the ice that remains is exceedingly thin.

The cost of climate change and its effects, including extreme weather, has been rising steadily by billions of dollars over the past couple of decades. In 2011, the United States broke the record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in a year, with fourteen disasters resulting in $47 billion in damages. Hurricane Sandy alone is slated to cost over $60 billion in damages and lost business. The insurance giant Munich Re reports that over the last decade,  the number of weather-related loss events each year in the U.S. has quintupled, costing Americans over a trillion dollars. And much worse is ahead if carbon pollution is not reduced.

If we keep up business as usual, we’ll increase global temperatures in the next few decades by nearly as much as they have increased since the last ice age. The effect of climate change on hurricanes alone is likely to cost an average of $40 billion per year in extra damages moving forward. The price of transitioning away from climate-polluting fuels to truly clean energy technologies will be vastly less than the price of putting multi-billion-dollar band-aids on these ever-more-frequent natural disasters.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy and investing in energy efficiency is a change we can and must make.  Clean energy is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. today, growing at a rate of 8.3 percent, nearly double the growth rate of the overall economy. Nevertheless, the fossil fuels industry has received 75 times more subsidies.

Rather than silence on climate change, we need action from our leaders. It’s time to end climate silence and our reckless support of fossil fuels, and start building a clean energy system that protects our country and our future.

For a refresher on communicating the realities of climate change, check out David Robert's June 2012 TED talk, now updated with footage and music.

Photo credits: Bloomberg Businessweek and NASA.

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