When tropical storm Sandy battered the Eastern United States and Canada, it outlined the grim and strange future of runaway climate. Although no one storm can be linked to any one specific source of emissions or atmospheric causes, this storm was extraordinary in its immense size and intensity, and it punctuated a summer that set heat and drought records across North America and the world. Scientists are now more than willing to acknowledge the link between climate change and storms. We know that Sandy was amplified by climate change and that we can expect more of these types of storms.
As an activist and analyst concerned about global warming, I recognize that the aftermath of Sandy represents a moment when we may be able to dislodge the dam of obfuscation, inaction and denial toward implementing policy that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some people argue that the "alarmist" frame of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was counterproductive to building a coalition for action. We've been taught that "negative" messaging is counterproductive to building a movement to tackle the issue. We're told that people do not respond well to "disaster scenarios" of a frightening and plausible future when we've fundamentally altered atmospheric chemistry. Fear motivates people to look out for themselves, to engage in more individualistic behaviour and to be skeptical of the action required to avoid a problem.
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With the grim reality of climate change-induced disasters at our doorstep, how do we outline a positive future and an empowering message that will get people to apply the political pressure needed to reduce GHG emissions? Further confounding this problem is that much of the action taken today will only affect outcomes 50 to 100 years into the future. We've committed ourselves to at least half a metre of sea level rise over the next 100 years; there's no way out of it. We've likely warmed our planet to the point that climate-related phenomena will disrupt out weather and societies for many years.
Many have concluded that this issue requires public buy-in for something positive — a better future — and that we need to explain this future if we hope to develop and implement the policies necessary to achieve it. We could paint a picture of a future clean-energy system that not only meets our environmental goals but allows our economy to stay strong, our communities to be healthier and our enjoyment of the world around us to increase.
The impacts on infrastructure and our communities contrast sharply with this picture, though. It's in this contrast that we need to engage. We can't let our discussions of Sandy veer far from the acknowledgement that this storm was amplified by one of the warmest years on record. We need to look at the storm damage in the context of reducing impacts on future generations and communities and in building resiliency to such disturbances.
The images of flooded subway systems, a torn-up boardwalk and power outages are powerful reminders of the consequences of inaction both to reduce emissions and to build up our resiliency to more powerful climate-induced events. We owe it to ourselves to talk about this openly and to remind our political leaders that this is the future they are carving out. We owe it to our neighbours and friends, as well as our children and grandchildren, to support the need for real policy on climate change, such as carbon pricing, diverting investment toward renewable energy, and investing in measures (dykes, distributed energy, response capacity) that will protect our communities from more severe weather and droughts.
Let's absorb the visual story from the aftermath of the storm. Our cities will experience the most acute change and impacts and it is in our cities where we must start adapting to climate impacts and reducing emissions. The urban nexus of human interaction, built infrastructure, economic activity, transportation and buildings all feed into the lion's share of our GHG emissions. Addressing how these cities enable fossil energy use, how they rely on single energy sources, and how exposed the layout and systems are to climate disruptions will outline opportunities to achieve positive outcomes. That means engaging with our city officials, enabling action and policy at the municipal level, and voting for representatives at all levels who are serious about climate impacts and mitigation.