The storm that wreaked havoc on Caribbean nations and the U.S. East Coast in late October offers a glimpse into our future. Along with recent heavy rainfall, flooding, heat waves and droughts throughout the world, it's the kind of severe weather event scientists have been telling us to expect as global temperatures rise.
Does that mean climate change caused Hurricane Sandy? No. Experts know that tropical Atlantic storms are normal this time of year. This one and its impacts were made unusually harsh by a number of converging factors: high tides, an Arctic weather system moving down from the north and a high-pressure system off Canada's East Coast that held the storm in place.
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But most climate experts are certain the intensity of the storm and the massive damage it caused were in part related to changing global climate, attributed mainly to our habit of burning fossil fuels as quickly and inefficiently as possible. Global warming causes sea levels and ocean temperatures to rise, which results in more rainfall and leads to a higher likelihood of flooding in low-lying areas.
Scientists also believe this year's record Arctic sea-ice melt may have contributed to the high-pressure system that prevented Sandy from moving out to sea. In short, the storm and the unprecedented flooding and damage are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting.
Extreme weather events, including heat waves and drought, are no longer just model-based predictions, though. NASA scientist James Hansen, who sounded the alarm about climate change in 1988, recently wrote in the Washington Post, "Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."
The damage that climate change is causing and that will get worse if we fail to act goes beyond the hundreds of thousands of lives, homes and businesses lost, ecosystems destroyed, species driven to extinction, infrastructure smashed and people inconvenienced. It will even devastate the one thing that many corporate and government leaders put above all else: that human creation we call the economy — the very excuse many of our leaders use to block environmental protection and climate action.
According to Hansen, the Texas drought in 2011 alone caused $5 billion in damage. Repairing the damage from Sandy in the U.S. is expected to cost at least $50 billion. And as former World Bank economist Lord Stern has pointed out, slowing climate change will cost, but doing nothing will cost far more.
And yet, in the U.S. presidential election, one candidate openly mocked climate science while the other all but ignored it. In Canada, our government's highest priority is to quickly extract and sell tar sands bitumen so that it can be burned up, mostly by China, which will further fuel global warming.
Some solutions are relatively simple and would provide economic benefits: implementing measures to conserve energy, putting a price on carbon through taxes and cap-and-trade and shifting from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources. Some may require a bit of sacrifice for people in the wealthiest parts of the world — substantially cutting down on automobile use and air travel and shifting from rampant consumerism to a more conservative way of living, for example.
Much of this requires rethinking the ways we measure progress and govern our economies. That's what we've always done when our tools no longer fit our circumstances. But it's just not compatible with rapid tar sands expansion and governing for the sake of the fossil fuel industry.
Even the Conference Board of Canada says we can rapidly expand tar sands production or we can do something about global warming — but not both. Thus, we see a mad rush to get the bitumen out of the ground and sell it quickly before it becomes economically unfeasible.
For the sake of our health, our children and grandchildren and even our economic well-being, we must make protecting the planet our top priority.