Sandy’s Silver Lining

You have to be careful when you say a weather disaster that killed 113 people in the US might do great good. The loss of life is terrible, and any right-thinking person’s heart goes out to those who are suffering.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City almost head on, and it may be the best thing that’s happened to improve the chances of real, meaningful action on anthropomorphic global warming to date.

Right after the storm hit, Mayor and former Republican Michael Bloomberg’s eponymous news service ran an editorial entitled A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change in which he endorsed Barack Obama for President. No doubt he was also behind the cover story of his magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, It’s Global Warming, Stupid.

We’ve been waiting a long time for a mainstream politician to have the courage to tell the truth about climate change. Now that New York, the nation’s largest city and its chief financial center, has been devastated by a freak storm, global warming may finally take a central position in the national dialog.

The Link to the Disappearing Ice Cap
Sandy made a sharp left to shore at New Jersey, driven by an unusually strong ridge of high pressure over Greenland. As Dr. Jeff Masters explains here, this high pressure ridge was in part caused by a large bend in the path of the jet stream, also unusual at this time of year.  Arctic sea ice loss can cause these kinds of blocking ridges. He doesn’t draw a straight-line connection between this year’s record low ice and Sandy’s ridge, but does say that the increased likelihood of this aberration in the jet stream is consistent with the shrinking ice cap.

Sandy is just the latest extreme weather event of the past few years. In 2011, the Northeast had Hurricane Irene. The year before, Washington DC had “Snowmageddon.” Also in 2010, a protracted heat wave in Russia destroyed 40% of its grain crop and set its peat bogs aflame. This past March, Michigan, Minnesota, and other northern states had nighttime temperatures in the eighties while it was snowing in Rome. And cumulatively, the first nine months of 2012 were the warmest of any year on record in the Lower 48.

The Link to Barry Bonds
Is this all a coincidence? Or is there an underlying cause that is making these things more likely? As Dr. Jerry Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research put it in Climate Science Watch:

Barry Bonds had a certain average level of home run production in his baseball career before he started allegedly taking steroids. Once he started taking performance enhancers, his home run production increased, and he set the single season record for home runs in 2001. Now he holds the all-time record for the most home runs. If we watched Bonds hit any one of these home runs, would we be able to say that it was directly caused by his steroid use? No, that’s impossible. But the odds of him hitting one are much higher; his base state has changed.

The atmosphere’s base state has changed with the addition of extra trapped energy. Warmer air, warmer oceans, melting ice cap, erratic jet stream–we’ve injected the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide, and Sandy is another episode of weather on steroids.

It’s global warming, stupid.

Come Out from the Climate Shadows
If we’re lucky, Bloomberg and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who also linked Sandy to AGW, will set an example for other pols to come out from the climate shadows and call for what is needed—a WW2-style effort to shift away from fossil fuels. We need agreement on this. Some strong persuasion, some tough deals, but ultimately, agreement. Leaders like Bloomberg and Cuomo can use this event and the Barry Bonds analogy to crystallize the need for action. Maybe, finally, we can build enough critical mass to get past the deniers and the vested interests.

There are massive practical problems to getting that agreement. How do we make the shift? What is the nature of the sacrifice, and how do we pay for it? How do we absorb the trillions of dollars of stranded investment from abandoned power plants, shuttered coal mines, and oil and gas left in the ground? The pressure to resolve these questions before we lose the ice cap and put large-scale agriculture on an irreversible downward path to non-viability is tremendous, because the ice cap is going fast. We’re not going to get that agreement by dumping all the costs on Ohio and West Virgina, or on ExxonMobil and Chevron, for that matter.

More on that in a future post. Meanwhile, to avoid losing another four years of precious time, you know who to vote for tomorrow. Romney’s stated policy is mockery of the entire issue. Obama has been timid on climate change (mostly to avoid charging up the rabid denier crowd into potentially violent resistance, I think), but he’s our last, best hope to get something going.

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