Not An Act of God
Not An Act Of God
by Ross Gelbspan
Hurricane Sandy was not an act of God.
The hurricane that paralyzed New York City, destroyed homes and lives from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, left 8 million people without power, canceled nearly 20,000 flights and generated about $50 billion in losses was in large part a creation of two kinds of human activities.
Sandy drew its ferocity from the temperature of surface ocean waters that was 5 degrees higher than normal. And those overheated waters were a consequence of the relentless accumulation heat-trapping gas from our burning of coal and oil. It was, in short, a direct result of man-made global warming.
And while Sandy has deservedly garnered the lion's share of headlines because of its heart-wrenching human costs, it has warming-driven precedents all over the world.
In just this year the impacts of our inflamed atmosphere have:
* Decimated crops in the Midwestern US where the most severe drought in 55 years, combined with record high temperatures (40 degrees F above average in North Dakota last January), destroyed much of the nation's corn crop.
* Destroyed more than 500 million trees in Texas as a result of the worst drought in the state's history;
* Generated outbursts of tornadoes in February which barreled up from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, destroying entire towns in Kentucky and Indiana;
* Contributed in June to intense downpours from tropical storm Debby which cut Florida's main east-west highway and dropped more than 26 inches of rain in two days on Florida, Georgia and other parts of the Gulf Coast;
* Generated record-breaking temperatures in June which triggered hurricane-force windstorms and cut power to two million people from Indiana to New Jersey;
These were not acts of God. They were the consequences of the buildup of carbon dioxide from our burning of coal and oil.
To be sure, there were other factors which contributed to Sandy's "unthinkable" destructiveness.
The massive surges that accompanied Sandy were also due to rising sea levels, driven by the runoff of melting glaciers and ice caps and the thermal expansion of water. (As the temperature increases, the oceans rise just as water in a saucepan rises when its temperature is increased.) As a result, the impact of surges are much more severe during ocean storms.
Sandy was further intensified by the presence of a stubborn "blocking pattern" which prevented its journey eastward back into the ocean and steered it back to the New Jersey coastline. That blocking pattern in the north Atlantic, most scientists believe, is a consequence of the warming that has melted the Arctic sea ice, releasing energy in the form of an invisible atmospheric wall that blocked Sandy's escape out to sea.
But as much as Sandy's fury was intensified by an unusual coincidence of physical factors, it was also the consequence of a much more insidious type of human activity.
While scientists and environmentalists have been relentless in their attempts to replace our coal-burning power plants and oil-fueled cars with clean energy alternatives, the fossil fuel industry has blocked them at every turn.
In 2009, when the Obama administration proposed putting a price on carbon emissions -- as a prelude to introducing a carbon-cutting "cap-and-trade" regime -- the fossil fuel industry hired 2,340 lobbyists to combat that move, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That amounted to four oil and coal lobbyists for every member of Congress.
More recently, industry players led by ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries paid state legislators hundreds of thousands of dollars to rewrite state laws to oppose or repeal mandatory emissions reductions, according to the Bloomberg News Service.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Koch Industries, Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris) and RJR Tobacco, among other corporations, funded a program to teach climate skepticism in the public schools. The campaign was directed by the Heartland Institute, a center dedicated to debunking the dangers of global warming.
As recently as May, the same Heartland Institute mounted an electronic billboard comparing climate activists to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The ad ran Kaczynski's photo with the line: "I believe in global warming. Do you?" The Institute planned to release similar ads portraying Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden as sympathetic to global warming campaigners.
And as recently as last June, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, declared there was no need to cut back on fossil fuel use. Global warming, he said, "is an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions."
(How, one wonders, would Mr. Tillerson have re-engineered hurricane Sandy?)
What is clearly needed -- and has been clearly needed for the last 20 years -- is a rapid global transition to an economy based on wind, solar, wave, hydro and all other forms of non-carbon energy. What the carbon lobby has successfully suppressed is the fact that such a transition would create millions of jobs, both in the US and in the developing world. It would turn poor countries into trading partners and dramatically expand the wealth of the global economy.
Hurricane Sandy was not an act of God. Neither is the restoration of climate security which would hopefully minimize the fury of many Sandys yet to come. Our climate future rests in human hands. Sandy simply provides a brutal reminder of how badly we humans have already blown it.
( c ) Ross Gelbspan, 2012