Photo: Will we learn from Sandy?

A truck stuck in New York City's flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy. (Credit: WarmSleepy via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

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.

November 8, 2012

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Nov 18, 2012
3:05 PM

We would be much more successful in dealing with catastrophes, if we dealt with them before they happen! Please read "Preventing a Ton of Cure: Disaster Preparedness" —

Thank you, Hearthstone — www.ModelEarth.Org

Nov 09, 2012
9:52 AM

Early adopters of post consumerism are already reaping personal financial and lifestyle rewards from the baby steps taken towards simpler living. Everything we do as fully active participants, in an economy dependent on over consumption of resources, not only chips away at the health of the environment, but increasingly makes us poorer as individuals and as a society because of the rising costs of exponentially diminishing resources and the growing damage of pollution. Stepping off a consumer treadmill that is getting us nowhere can free body, mind and soul for more personally rewarding pursuits.

Nov 09, 2012
8:59 AM

I am so disappointed I missed the chance to hear your speak in person in Victoria last night. I found out you were here an hour too late.

It is apparent to me that 'economic gain' has become a priority to those in government, and therefore, apparent that our countries are being run by people who simply don't have an interest in the planet's health and future. As an intelligent and educated person, it scares me to no end. The weather the earth has been experiencing is quite obviously a result of global warming — something resulting and carelessly wreaked by our species.

I am a mother. I am a philosopher. I am a Canadian. And I am very angry at the callousness exhibited by certain people who have somehow become our leaders. These people — Harper in particular — are not fit to lead anything, except maybe a 'suck it earth' rally.

What boggles my mind is the ubiquitous apathy. John A. Macdonald was our first Prime Minister (P.M.). He was kicked out of office because of the Pacific Scandal, which involved railway building contracts. Macdonald gave a fat railway contract to an American company (with the understanding that the company would make a generous donation to his political party). The public was outraged and Macdonald was forced out of office. Kudos to the original Canadians. It seemed we used to understand that if our chosen leader did more harm than good, then he was a punk looking for another job.

The slippery slope of the 'someone else will deal with it' mentality has gotten so out of hand to the point of being the norm, and in my everyday life, I find it more and more difficult to cope with it.

Thanks for reading. This planet was not designed for this kind of viral load. I will do anything I can, but I admit that although I write passionate letters and talk a lot about what matters, I feel helpless in the face of greed and short-sighted morons who don't seem to have the capacity to understand that a clean and balanced environment is not only necessary for our continued survival, but quite obviously, is more important than this artificial, mad-made concept of 'economic gain'.

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