Was Superstorm Sandy the Result of Climate Change?

Hurricane Sandy 2012
Hurricane Sandy 2012 (Photo credit: charliekwalker)

“Superstorm Sandy triggers climate blame game
David Shukman
BBC News
13 December 2012

As the East Coast continues its painful recovery from the wrath of Sandy, some commentators have used the opportunity to put forth their pet theories about climate change. Along those lines, I found BBC Science Editor David Shukman’s commentary on the link between global warming and Sandy to be a refreshng break from shouting on both sides of the issue.

Shukman, whom I would not put into the “denialist” camp on climate change, says that we are all still learning about the link between changes in surface temperature and tropical storms, and as such we need to keep the discussion fact-based. Responding to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s comments on the storm, he noted:

The question is one of risk, not of certainty – the risk that the continuing rise in greenhouse gases from human activities may exacerbate extreme weather.

To go further, as many environmental campaigners would like to – to suggest that the violence of Hurricane Sandy is the result of global warming – is to strain what scientists themselves are able to conclude.

When we have debates about climate change and man’s relationship to it, the two concepts we have to focus on are a) what are the scientifically provable (or likely) facts; and b) what are the realistic and worst-case risks we face? Based on rational, science-based answers to those questions (as opposed to wishful thinking or science fiction), we can craft the policies most likely to mitigate the risks.

I am not yet ready to buy the most gloomy predictions of impending doom (and I’m still buying coastal property), but I have always believed in using the precautionary principle when it comes to matters of national security: give the guy with the scary story the benefit of the doubt and make reasonable, extendable, cost-effective preparations for the worst case.

If, for example, we decide that there is a risk that our dependency on fossil fuels is causing global warming, do we as a nation lose anything by directing university research at the development of alternatives (which, by the way, need a lot of development? Are there not compelling economic and national security reasons for reducing our dependence on a non-renewable resource?

And are there not sufficient public health benefits to reduced fossil-fuel emissions to provide us an incentive to pursue that policy? What about the economic benefits of raising the energy efficiency of businesses, buildings, and households? Can we honestly say that growing more green plants, even if ostensibly to “lock up” carbon, has no other benefits to mankind?

We need to driven by wisdom in this debate, not by fear, nor by greed, nor by inertia. Shukman injects the debate with some wisdom.

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