Jan 1 2013

Sandy and Climate

Media asked wrong questions, got wrong answer

Photo cred.: Andrew Mills (The Star-Ledger)

Photo cred.: Andrew Mills (The Star-Ledger)

Hurricane Sandy may be remembered not only as the most powerful storm ever to strike the Eastern seaboard, but also as the moment when a large segment of the U.S. media first allowed itself to say the words “climate change” in relation to a severe weather event.

And while sometimes the question was dismissed as soon as it was asked—as on NBC’s Meet the Press (11/4/12), where host David Gregory opened the show by asking, “Should more attention be paid to a changing climate’s impact on the severity of these storms?” then implicitly answered his own question by never addressing climate again during the show—other Sandy coverage made a more serious attempt to ask whether human causes are to blame for worsening weather.

Mentioning the changing climate is not the same as discussing it coherently, though. Too often news coverage still managed to drop the ball on the climate lessons of Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina hits Massachusetts (cc photo: The Birkes/Wikimedia)

Hurricane Katrina hitting Marblehead, Massachusetts (cc photo: The Birkes/Wikimedia)

As with wildfires and other extreme weather events (Extra!, 8/11), there is clear evidence linking this storm’s strength to climate change. Three climate-related factors were in place that were expected to help make Sandy an extra-powerful storm:

  • Hurricanes draw their strength from warm ocean waters—it’s why they strike in summer and fall—and the Atlantic was about 5° F warmer than usual in October, an estimated 1° of which was due to climate change (Slate, 10/29/12).
  • The hurricane’s unusual path—veering toward the coastline instead of blowing harmlessly out to sea—was influenced by a “blocking” pattern that redirected the jet stream to loop back on itself. While blocking patterns occur in all climates, they’re predicted to increase as the Arctic warms (Wunderground.com, 10/31/12).
  • Warmer temperatures also contribute to sea level rise—not just because of melting Arctic ice, but also because seawater expands as it heats. As Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s studies, told Chris Matthews (MSNBC, 10/30/12), Sandy’s winds were “pushing on a sea level which was higher than it would otherwise have been, and it was able to push the water further and further inland.”

The upshot, then: While the Atlantic coast has been hit by hurricanes before, all indications are that pumping added carbon into the atmosphere loaded the dice for Sandy to be more damaging than any storm we would likely have seen in a cooler climate. In the U.K., Telegraph blogger Tom Stivers (10/29/12) explained it in terms of a wheel of fortune:

It’s meaningless to ask, of each individual spin, what “caused” it—the different factors, like how hard you spun it, how well the axle is greased, etc., all contribute. But over the longer term, you can observe the changes in probability, and see the effect that the weight is having on average.

 Back in the U.S., though, this simple statistical principle led numerous journalists to balk entirely at the task of trying to discuss Sandy in terms of climate change. New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin (NYTimes.com, 10/28/12) decried any attempt to declare Sandy “a human-created meteorological monster,” arguing that “there remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms—on time scales from decades to centuries—to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet.” The Associated Press (10/30/12) cited Texas A&M geo-scientist Gerald North saying “mostly it’s natural, I’d say it’s 80, 90 percent natural,” as a reason that “it’s unfair to blame climate change for Sandy and the destruction it left behind.”

Saying that an event is “90 percent natural,” though, isn’t the same as saying it’s not the result of climate change, any more than record-breaking heat can be dismissed on the grounds that we’ve always had hot summers. That’s especially true in the case of Sandy, where even a small climate-related strengthening could have been what pushed the storm surge to the point where it flooded subways and basements, knocking out power and transit to hundreds of thousands of people.

Still, compared to past extreme weather events, there was more talk of climate effects than usual. As Sandy landfall approached, CNN (10/29/12) brought on NYU physicist Michio Kaku to explain, “The Caribbean is heating up, so we’re going to have larger and larger hurricanes in the future, perhaps”; he also noted that thinning polar ice can lead to an “erratic” jet stream that produces “superhurricanes.”

U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research climatologist Kevin Trenberth appeared on several news programs, telling NBC’s Robert Bazell (10/30/12) that stronger storms are “the new normal,” to which Bazell responded that it’s “likely to get worse before it gets better.” (Though even then Bazell hedged by saying that “increasing carbon dioxide, many scientists say, warms the air”—a “many” that would have to include John Tyndall, who first proved the warming effects of CO2 in 1859.)

Still, the conclusion drawn was less that this was a human-caused catastrophe in need of human intervention than that this “new normal” must simply be adapted to. “Scientists warn that severe weather is going to become more commonplace,” warned a Baltimore Sun editorial (11/1/12), before calling for increased preparation for “surviving bad weather.” CNN devoted several segments (e.g., 10/31/12, 11/1/12) to such measures as building higher sea walls and massive storm surge gates in order to help cities “defend themselves against such powerful enemies.”

That the ultimate enemy is less the implacable weather than ourselves was seldom discussed. And it was nearly impossible to find any post-Sandy talk of ways to halt warming (or, more accurately, slow it, as the built-in lag in the climate’s response to greenhouse gases means that further warming is inevitable even if carbon emissions were to halt now) by reducing carbon emissions, whether via a carbon tax, strong carbon-emission regulations or other measures that so far the U.S. government has made little progress on.

In one rare exception, before an interview with former Science Guy (and current Planetary Society CEO) Bill Nye to discuss the impacts of climate change (11/23/12), CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield asked in-house meteorologist Chad Myers—who’d previously charged that climate scientists believe in global warming because they’re “paid by the government” to do so (3/30/10)—“What, if anything, can be done to change the equation here?” Myers responded:

You don’t think we’re doing a lot? We’re recycling. We’re turning off the lights. We’re doing so much more than our parents did. But we’re not slowing it down. We have so many more people on the planet now, that concentration is still going up.

And that, aside from calls by Nye for “new technologies that will help us do more with less,” and for burying electrical wires to keep them from being knocked down by storms, was that. A week later, when an environmental group sued the EPA to force it to regulate carbon emissions (Guardian, 11/28/12), CNN chose not to cover it.

Neil deMause (@neildemause) is a contributing writer for Extra!