Hurricane Sandy: A climate Pearl Harbor?

Only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor did the US mobilize to enter World War II.

Might Hurricane Sandy mobilize the US to tackle global warming?

This isn’t my metaphor. People have been talking about “climate Pearl Harbors” for years. (Here’s a Joe Romm post from 2008.) The theory is that, because global warming is a slow-moving threat  that for a variety of peculiar reasons is incredibly difficult to resolve politically — for more on that, read my climate ebook, Suck It Up — a dramatic event, involving death and destruction, will be required to awaken a citizenry that is largely indifferent, confused or otherwise occupied.

Of course we’ve had plenty of extreme weather in recent years. Hurricane Katrina. A Russian heat wave that killed 700 in 2010. Floods in Australia in 2011. Disasters in places like Pakistan and Mali that barely made headlines.

But those involved black people, poor people, faraway people or, in the case of the wildfires and droughts that plagued the US this year, trees and crops.

Hurricane Sandy is affecting New Yorkers. New York, along with Washington, is the power center of the US. Wall Street. The news business. Media, fashion, advertising, PR.

These are sandbags outside the office of Goldman Sachs.

The rain had barely stopped when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, had this to say:

It’s a longer conversation, but I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable.

Well, uh, gee, yeah.

This hurricane might even turn New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie into a climate hawk.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a demonstrated passion for the climate issue. He could make global warming a focus of his considerable energies, not to mention his fortune, after leaving office.

[To be sure, those of us who have been paying attention understand that no single weather event can be definitively tied to climate change blah blah blah blah but come on people. As Grist’s David Roberts wrote today, no single Barry Bonds home run can be attributed to steroids but the performance enhancing drugs sure put some extra pop in his bat.]

By chance, I visited today with the leader of one of the world’s biggest environmental groups. He sounded chipper, and expressed the hope that Sandy might be a game-changer.

“New Yorkers are not shy,” he told me. “The most powerful people in the country have been pretty damn inconvenienced.”

No one wants to see suffering. But if Hurricane Sandy does turn into a wake-up call on climate, maybe a few days or weeks of inconvenience will be a price worth paying.


  1. Ed Reid says

    There is absolutely no scientific basis on which to attribute hurricane Sandy to climate change. Obviously, that is not keeping the AGW/CAGW “true believers” from doing so.

      • says

        Ed, C’mon! Do you really rely on the WSJ and Anthony Watts for your info? If you had chest pains, would you rely on your broker or your minister? Don’t listen to the professional, perennial climate deniers or those with right wingnut conspiracy theories. Why not trust the experts — you know, the guys with the Ph.D.s in the relevant fields? They are in agreement that climate change is real and we are the cause.

        • Ed Reid says

          Try reading second link. It’s not too long. Focus on the list of the “PhDs in the relevant fields”.

          Climate change IS real; and, it has been for as long as we can analyze.
          Humans influence climate, both through land use and emissions.
          Extent and sensitivities are questionable. Available data quality is poor.
          Models display limited predictive skill. (See Hansen graph presented to Congress in 1988.)

          My initial comment in this string stands, with specific regard to Sandy and causation.

      • says

        Ed- Pielke still professes a belief that human activity does affect the earth’s climate. Even then, the article seems to only be asking half of the right questions. Whether or not Sandy is one of the strongest or most costly hurricanes in history seems less important. I would be more interested in how it compares to other hurricanes that have made landfall in the Northeast–which he touches on briefly–but also how many of those were doing it at the end of October. Having a more regular weaker hurricanes that hit uncharacteristic parts of the country later into the fall could be just as bad as fewer stronger hurricanes arriving where and when we would expect them to–or at least, more indicative of a changing climate.

        *Also, less costly damage could have to do with increased proficiency in structural systems and building code requirements rather than only the strength of the storms.

        As far as I am concerned Hurricane Sandy does not seal the deal on anything, but is merely just one more 2012 data point that diminishes the likelihood of coincidence.

  2. says

    Do you think that Sandy was enough of a push though? As devastating and terrible as it was, I still think in order to spur stubborn and pre-occupied people, who have so far done nothing to acknowledge the threat of climate change, into action it will take a truly devastating event – something that takes the lives of multiple hundreds.

    • Marc Gunther says

      In my heart of hearts, I’m afraid that Sandy will not be enough. I think a bottom-up, rather than top-down, movement will be required to drive climate action. But maybe this well help.

  3. Jeff Weintraub says

    No, Marc, I think The Onion has it right:

    Report: Only Way Nation Will Pay Attention To Climate Change Is If Julia Roberts Dies In Hurricane

    TALLAHASSEE, FL—As the nation recovers from Hurricane Sandy, Florida State University researchers released a report Wednesday revealing that the only circumstance in which Americans would ever pay any attention at all to the issue of climate change would be if film actress Julia Roberts were killed in a hurricane. “Our data suggest that Julia Roberts will either have to drown in rising floodwaters or be crushed to death as 170-mile-per-hour winds demolish her home before the country even acknowledges global warming,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Brooke Langley, adding that the widely beloved star of Erin Brockovich and Pretty Woman would need to be killed in no less than a Category 1 tropical cyclone for the populace to notice that irregular climate shifts pose a very real threat to humanity. “Even if millions are killed and entire cities are washed away, only the sight of Ms. Roberts’ pale, lifeless corpse lying amid storm wreckage will convince Americans to have open and frank discussions about the disastrous effects of greenhouse-gas emissions. And even then, there’s no telling if it will be enough for the country to actively take any steps to reduce them.” At press time, disappointed climatologists confirmed that Julia Roberts remains alive and was entirely unharmed by Hurricane Sandy.,30192/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=SocialMarketing&utm_campaign=standard-post:headline:default

  4. Dan Taylor says

    This is not the first category 1 hurricane to hit New York. According to Wikipedia there has been 84 cyclones the have affected New York since the 17th century. The unusual about Sandy is the track, which you really have to contort yourself to blame on climate change.

    • Ed Reid says

      There was a “beauty” in 1962. I can remember driving on Ocean Boulevard along the Jersey Shore and seeing an older, multi-story guest house which was missing its South end, with the exception of four narrow sections of floor on each level, supported by the main plumbing tree and “topped” by a “throne” on each level.

      I also recall, though perhaps not from the same storm, that Skitch Henderson had recently built a large home on an island off the South coast of Long Island and returned, after the storm, to two smaller islands separated by the previous location of his new house.

  5. says

    The first comment is telling. The denial machine is well organized, or well paid. Or is there truly an army so committed to denial that every single blog, essay and news story is instantly detected and commented on?

    To Mr. Gunther’s point, I am taking a dimmer and dimmer view. To change now would be the reverse of a psychotic break–suddenly coming clean and admitting what was known all along. What’s the advantage? I hate to say it, but I think your typical Fortune reader would much rather do nothing. Change is expensive and a lot of money can be made as society falls apart. Surely the most classically tragic instance of sunk costs ever.

  6. says

    Great topic Marc. I’ve actually been having this conversation with people for the better part of the past two days (given that the office I work at has been without power and most likely will be until Saturday night). At the moment, I’d be happy if it made environmental issues more prevalent in the Presidential vote. For as terrible as Sandy was for the Northeast, it is heartening to see so many politicians make the connection between this storm and environmental concerns.

    I think there are some aspects that set this storm apart. Irene hit New York recently, but the result was a city well prepared for a non-event. This time, beyond the cost of the actual damage, if you walk through the streets of lower Manhattan, you see millions of dollars of business that is not happening–half of a city crippled by a lack of energy to sustain it. When you add that to the fact that people were walking around in t-shirts at the end of October before the storm hit, the connection is becoming easier for more people to make.

    I remain cautiously optimistic about people’s slow realization of their role in environmental issues. This year we had heat waves, a rash of tornadoes, massive drought, wild fires and now a late mid-fall hurricane in the Northeast. The important aspect is that the effects of climate change touch everyone, the entire country will reap the ramifications of our decisions.

  7. says

    I beleive the deniers are organized and act both conciously and unconciously. Policitally speaking, the right wing has been very effective in changing the focus from issues such a climate change by bringing up old topics like women’s rights and other sicuak issues that were settled in past elections. Deniers are closed minded because they are trained to be that way. Thank you Marc for bringing up climate change.

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