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Hurricane Sandy: "It's Global Warming, Stupid"

On a recent broadcast of the news show Democracy Now hosted by Amy Goodman, Cynthia Rosenzweig, co-chair of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, went out of her way to begin her comments on Hurricane Sandy and the effects of global warming to issue a disclaimer: "but first Amy, I need to make something very clear: any one storm cannot be associated directly with climate change…we have to be very careful not to say Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change."

Unfortunately, this could easily be taken to imply that warming and Sandy may have had nothing to do with one another. The word “associated” is particularly misleading (as opposed to “caused”) because to say a given storm and global warming aren’t associated is flat untrue. Rosenzweig said this right at the beginning of her segment before she went on to explain about the dangers of climate change (which she is qualified to do as a distinguished climate scientist).

This is the kind of overly couched, ass-covering commentary that drives me crazy. Because the fact is that global warming did, unquestionably, influence Sandy.  

Basic chemistry proves that carbon dioxide traps heat, primarily infrared wavelengths. This has been known since 1859, and is clearly demonstrated in this great BBC video experiment. (If you have any doubts at all regarding the fundamental science, watch it, and even if you don’t, it’s pretty cool.) Since the beginning of the fossil fuels era, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased to nearly 43 percent, from 280 parts per million (PPM) to 400 PPM. That is a lot more carbon dioxide holding a lot more heat energy. Simple calculations reveal that between 1951 and 2011, extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has added energy in the amount of 210 sextillion additional joules that would not be here if we were still at the old 280 PPM levels.  (Energy or heat wise, a joule is a little less than a quarter of a calorie.)

So we’ve added 210,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 extra joules of heat and counting (we’re adding about 34 billion tons more carbon dioxide per year, trapping ever more heat energy), and that energy is in every molecule of the atmosphere. That’s how it works. More energy in any system means that system is powered to be more active. If you throw a ball 43 percent harder, it will fly with more force. If a gallon of gas gets you and your car 20 miles, 1.43 gallons will get you 28.6 miles. That’s what warming is – extra energy rendered as heat. 

Small wonder insurers have concluded that the rate of weather-related disasters has quintupled over the last three decades. Yes, there were storms back before warming, when the atmosphere was still at 280 PPM, but they had a lot less energy to work with. There can be no question that the additional energy in the molecules of the atmosphere comprising Sandy influenced her strength. On the contrary, physics indicates that it’s impossible for all that energy not to have influence, as if somehow Sandy existed in a 280 PMM atmosphere, as if she grew in a bubble shielded from reality. She didn’t, we don’t.

It is worth observing that with energy in the atmosphere at its highest in the era of human recordkeeping, Sandy came ashore with record rainfall and record storm surges.  (Spoiler: as additional carbon dioxide traps still more additional energy in the atmosphere, more extreme weather event records will be set. Soon.) Sandy may well have existed in a 280 PPM world, but there is no way she would have been the same storm with the same energy; implying that all things might have been equal in a pre-warming world and at the present day is misleading and just wrong.

However well intentioned, comments like Dr. Rosenzweig’s provide the kind of exclamation that gets repeated without context, ad nauseum, by proponents of climate disinformation. Don’t be surprised if disinformer-in-chief Senator James Inhofe even quotes her on the floor of the Senate to make his case for “drill baby drill.” (Don’t laugh, Inhofe has applied this tactic using the words of 350.org’s Bill McKibben, Grist’s David Roberts and others; see this year’s Senate Hearing on Climate Change, starting at 1:40 in this video.) 

Fortunately, not all media communication on warming is so timid. Enter Mike Bloomberg. His approach to business and government has been empirically rational and evidence based. If data tell him something unequivocally, that’s what he seems to believe. His endorsement of President Obama in next week’s election was made on the same basis, “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.” 

So for him and his organization it made sense for the post-Sandy cover of their flagship magazine Bloomberg Business Week to read “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” above an image of a Sandy-flooded New York City. This is evidence based, real, non-misleading climate communication, from a man not afraid of backlash. Kudos, Mayor Bloomberg. Your unwillingness to temper science in the face of monetarily or ideologically motivated pressure shows us a real way forward.

But still the other end of the communications spectrum remains. In her effort to be fair and balanced, and qualified as she is, Dr. Rosenzweig doesn’t seem to realize that her language plays into the hands of climate change deniers funded by and existing for the benefit of the fossil fuels industry. Many news viewers and listeners don’t get past the first 30 seconds of a segment, so unfortunately many people heard an expert say, “we have to be very careful not to say Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change.” As a result, more people, not less, arguably think climate science must be debatable. It’s not.

We’ve been so conditioned by climate deniers’ chimera of false fairness and by fear of being labeled ‘extremist’ that now even climate scientists are making arguments that seem to encourage doubt. Dr. Rosenzweig, plainly speaking the truth is not extremism. Fear to do so is. 

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