Hurricane Sandy and climate change
There’s a lot being written about Hurricane Sandy in connection with climate change. It is likely that this hurricane was exacerbated by human induced climate change, notably the excessively warm waters off New England, but it is not scientifically correct to say the hurricane or its merging to become a nor’easter were caused by climate change. It is possible that the blocking high over Greenland contributed to that, however the attribution is dilute, if present.
Andy Revkin in the New York Times has a nice summary of the current science.
Although we know all is affected by greater energy on the planet, the fraction of Sandy’s fury attributable is perhaps 10%. Thus, comments like the following from 350.org are simply incorrect, and are misleading:
It’s as out of kilter as the melting Arctic or the acidifying ocean. And if there were any poetic justice, it would be named Hurricane Chevron or Hurricane Exxon, not Hurricane Sandy.
The ends do not justify the means.
If there’s something to be learned by this experience, it is that climate change is expanding and enlarging the oceans by thermal effects, and eventually by ice mass melting, both through displacement and gravitational effects. Eventually, common nor’easters will suffice to breach Battery Park walls and drown barrier islands. And there may be surprises in store as well.
As some of you have seen, I myself have done a calculation showing that the frequency of out of season hurricanes has increased since the late 19th century. That increase is statistically significant, although it may not be enough for everyone to notice.
Despite the great need to move policy towards a global economy that grows without more material consumption, which I very much agree with, distorting the facts destroys trust and disturbs the healthy ecosystem of scientific funding and research. It is also unethical.
It may be inconvenient that people are not moved by reason as much as by fear. But that is their choice, even if they suffer the consequences. It’s the responsibility of science to educate and be principled, even if we know that delay implies additional cost, additional deaths. It will also be the responsibility of science to tell policymakers and people that certain aspects of climate change are no longer reversible in any time frame that makes political or economic sense, and the longer we wait, the more of that kind of thing there will be.
I ask your collective understanding of this matter, and draw your attention to what will be the increasing problem of mitigating rather than preventing climate-related risks, as they are described in the SREX report from the IPCC. (Revkin alludes to this at his page.)
Thanks. Hope everyone’s healthy and safe.
Having read article after article that patiently explains the probabilistic, uncertain effects of global warming on the occurrence and intensity of any given hurricane, and having read one after another frothing-at-the-mouth comment from climate deniers accusing the journalist of “propaganda” and asserting that “weather isn’t climate,” the whole thing is a hoax and “Al Gore!” “Al Gore!” I’m beginning to think it’s about time to cut the qualified, explanatory scientific crap and call a spade a spade. Climate denial in the 21st century is what antisemitism was in the 19th.
The Austrian politician, Ferdinand Kronawetter called it “the socialism of fools.” Climate denial is the socialism of fuels. Here’s how Pavel Milyukov explained in in 1917 (although he incorrectly attributed the phrase to Bismark):
“when the nation was called to participate in state affairs, there arose the need of influencing it in a certain sense. It became necessary to work up the masses, to act on their intellect and will. Official anti-Semitism [climate denial] is the most primitive means of satisfying this need, a simplified attempt to bridle the masses, to suggest to them the feelings, motives, views and methods which are in the interest of those who play the game. In other words, demagogy came into being. For the purposes of demagogy a special political weapon, corresponding to the political conditions under the new regime, was created, — namely artificial political parties.”
“Bismarck [Kronawetter], it will be remembered, called anti-Semitism the socialism of fools. In order to combat the socialism of clever people, it is necessary to take hold of the ignorant masses and to mislead them by showing them the imaginary enemy of their welfare instead of the real one. Anti-Semitism says to the ignorant masses: ‘There is your enemy, fight the Jews [climate science], and you will improve your life conditions…'”
“distorting the facts destroys trust…”
This is hopelessly naive and patently untrue. The reactionary right and the climate deniers rely on little else than “distortion of fact” to build trust with their constituency. It is negative bonding. They build trust amongst themselves by destroying trust for others.
As the govenor of NY noted, they are getting 100 year storms every 2years.
As far as I understand, the changing climate has allowed us to have many large storm and drought events.
Extreme weather events, such as Sandy and the tornadoes of last year, are a way of convincing the innumerate populace of climate change. It is true that weather is not in itself climate, but it is also true that a series of unlikely events, all in the same direction, tell which way the wind is blowing (metaphor intended). 🙂
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Thank you to Sandwichman, Daniel Becker, and Min for giving me the opportunity to respond, and to offer a fact I omitted in my post.
Last things first. I should have cited a reference for my blind quote of “perhaps 10%” in my original. That reference is K.E.Trenberth, “Framing the way to relate climate extremes to climate change”, Climatic Change, 2012, 115:283-290, available online as DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0441-5 (e.g., through dx.doi.org). The 2nd paragraph of Section 2 (“Is this extreme due to global warming?”) cites a “5-10 % effect”.
Now, @Sandwichman. I don’t believe an individual should care about whether trust is built for “deniers” or not, and an individual’s behavior oughtn’t depend upon how others behave. Some might even extend that to violent situations, even if I don’t entirely. Whether it is “hopelessly naive” or not is up to the readership to decide. Sandwichman has not demonstrated how it is untrue.
@Daniel Becker, a “100 year storm” or, for that matter, a “100 year flood” is conceptually flawed. I won’t get technical, but these are based upon notions that these “return times” are independent random events. In fact, events like storms are correlated at multiple scales and these effects can make it appear long term variability is smaller than it is, which the “100 year flood” model fails to capture. One long correlation and trend is due to the physics of climate change. There are others, too, but the point is I would not expect simple counting like this to give good estimates of these processes.
@Min is correct if we wait long enough. While extreme effects may be 10% now, they will increase in size of effects. One interpretation may simply be that the public demands a demonstration of a threshold effects size before acting. Except for one contingency, that can be entirely reasonable, as long as they also understand lag time and realize that the time until things start getting better goes farther and farther out the longer we collectively wait to take major remedial measures. That means the total cost to civilization will be bigger and more intense at its peak the longer we wait to begin.
The contingency is that all this presumes and hopes we do not encounter a climatic bifurcation, a property of some highly nonlinear systems like Earth’s climate. These are nearly unpredictable and can be catastrophic, even if some, like Professor Lenton of University of Exeter, are working to detect such bifurcations in climate signals, and even if these catastophes may exceed our ability to imagine and anticipate.
While we may be cautious in our attributions, I continue to like Professor Wally Broecker’s characterization that “The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking at it with sticks”.
There are several questions that exist:
1. Is global warming happening?
2. If so, is our human lifestyle causing it?
3. If a part of our lifestyle is causing it, what is the part must we eliminate?
4. Do we have a technologically sound replacement for that part eliminated?
5. If not, what are the economic and social consequences of eliminating it anyway?
6. Are we willing to accept the consequences on a worldwide basis?
While scientists may be able to answer question 1 with some assurance, question 2 might be harder. Many people have leaped to CO2 as the answer to question 3. Question 4 in my mind is a NO if we’re talking carbon based fuels. Question 5 few people ever want to talk about. Question 6 may be a yes for some, while others may disagree. Maybe we should have a worldwide vote on question 6.
Scientists that think they have the answers and solutions to all six questions might be a little over exuberant. They might want to check-in with the economists, sociologists, business leaders, religious leaders and others. There is obliviously a lot more to this discussion than just leaving the SUV in the garage and putting up a windmill.
Jan, since you are citing trenberth, its apropos to point out what he wrote today about “Super Storm Sandy”
I get it.
I’m only relating what the governor said and considering where the populace is at, I think putting long term trends into sound bits helps move the populace to where we have to go.
Thus, your discussion for those who are used to numbers (many AB readers) works however, for those who are small business owners (say 1 to 5 employees like 75% of all small business)who tell me “I have to vote for Romney because he’s a small businessman like me”; shortening the time event of a repetitive long trend works in getting their attention.
Or, we can just keep telling people here in RI land that the reason the snow events seem so little is because they are taller than when they were in 1st grade when they would sink up to their hips. The snow is just as deep as ever! And then you remind them that one used to be able to walk on the crust (1″ thick”) of the snow when one was shorter for a couple months out of the season.
I mean Jan, we’re talking about a populace that watches it’s annual GDP grow smaller every year, refers to it as still growing and then declares a problem when it finally goes below zero. We did have positive growth. That the growth was getting smaller every year just was not recognized as a problem. The peak was summer 2006, the declaration of “Oh darn, we’re in trouble” was December 2007and that did not happen until December 2008. OOPS!
anon @ 5:19, on your six good questions…
it’s fair to say that we agree, as we established in a previous thread here that the planet is warming…
on 2 & 3, we can agree that our lifestyle is in part at fault, but lets not be so sure about CO2 being the sole cause; as cited in aforementioned thread, in japan’s nuclear energy program before fukushima, two thirds of the heat energy, or approximately 100,000,000 kilowatts of energy per day, was being lost; meaning “that every day they were pumping into the sea energy equivalent to 100 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima“…
we can guess that the heat loss from other forms of electric generation is comparable, but whatever the case, it’s obvious that our heating of the planet goes far beyond the heat trapped by human generated greenhouse gases…
we tend to agree on 4 as well…anything we try to substitute for fossil fuels necessitates a large front loading of our carbon footprint (ie, to build windmills you have to mine & transport the ores with diesel fuel, smelt the metals in coal powered mills, etc)
& here are the consequences of eliminating them anyway
so more than likely, if they all could really vote on it, a self aware species would put us on a path not unlike the one we’re already on…
I agree with your statement as the lies seem to be repeated often enough to which many believe what is not true. Goebbels was a mater of the big lie and the Republicans under Romney, Ryan, Rove, etc. take it to great lengths in which case the public can not decide what is right or wrong.
To Jan’s defense what limited short term statistical data available over the decades points in a direction; but, it is in the short term and not conclusive. The sample needs to be bigger in order to have a great confidence level. He is right; but, do we need to wait for the heart attack before we cut back on the fatty, sugary, and salty food?
Ryan, Romney and Rove are not Goebbels. Come on… is that the only place you see lies? Also I agree, we don’t have to wait for a heart attack to cut back on the fatty, sugary, and salty foods. But we also don’t operate on the heart until we have some unquestionable symptoms.
Actually Anonymous, we treat the heart when we have unquestionable symptoms. We treat it in an attempt to avoid surgery. Unfortunately, the symptoms are the result of doing what one knows they should not do.
So, just like waiting for the GDP to go to below zero, we waste a lot of time, energy and money implimenting action only after we get to Oops.
The warming planet issue is flowing humanities time in the same manor.
@rjs, for the record, I don’t see anything substantially different in Trenberth’s op-ed from today than what he has already said in his technical and other articles.
@rjs, from 31 Oct 2012, 2025 ET,
Detonating 100 Hiroshima level nuclear weapons is miniscule compared to the forcing from the human caused CO2 that is retained in the atmosphere, that is, the portion that is not thankfully dissolved in the ocean (*). Professor James Hansen said in a recent TED Talk that: “The total energy imbalance now is about six-tenths of a watt per square meter. That may not sound like much, but when added up over the whole world, it’s enormous. It’s about 20 times greater than the rate of energy use by all of humanity. It’s equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day. This imbalance, if we want to stabilize climate, means that we must reduce CO2 from 391 ppm, parts per million, back to 350 ppm. That is the change needed to restore energy balance and prevent further warming.”
Of course, we are flirting with 400 ppm at the moment.
(*) Apart from the negative consequences of acidification from dissolving such enormous amounts of CO2 in ocean, such as possibly making life difficult if not downright hostile for photosynthetic dinoflagellates, it is an open question to marine science whether or not there is a saturation limit of such dissolution and, if there is, how rapidly we are approaching it.
I have not read the climate issue put in terms of energy absorption before. I think the way you just put it could make a difference in how people think if the MSM used such a presentation.
I mean, everyone knows a nuclear bomb is powerful.
jan, not being capable of working out the computations myself, i’ll accept without dispute that greenhouse gases are more responsible for warming the planet than the ambient heat associated with power production and other human activity…
but i remain skeptical that, even if everyone were convinced that we were responsible for heating the planet, we could limit our use of carbon fuels enough to reduce atmospheric CO2, much less return to 350 ppm…
i think our anonymous friend has asked some serious questions i dont see anyone addressing yet…
The effects of severe weather, especially flooding, seems to rarely address the issue of inhabiting the flood zone of a body of water. How much of lower Manhattan is a land extension into a body of water? How much of NJ is built on bogs, estuaries and shore lines? There is good reason why the wealthy have always settled on the “high ground” though the need to have that second (or third) home at the shore is now biting some in the butt.
Climate change may very well be at the cause of weather extremes, but developing for habitation that land which Nature had intended for ducks, egrets, and fish is simply stupid. All too often the foolishness of such developments isn’t apparent until the developers have taken the money and gone back up their mountains. They know that its always preferable to live on the high ground.
back on topic:
Dr. Jeff Masters’ asks Why did Hurricane Sandy take such an unusual track into New Jersey?
& offers as one possible answer: “Arctic sea ice loss can cause blocking ridges”
There is a really excellent summary of all this with deeper details at my favorite source for knowledge about the subject. This is article from today from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), at:
@rjs from 1 Nov 12:32 PM,
Yes, blocking ridges are believed to be a byproduct of Arctic sea ice loss. There is a great presentation by Dr Jennifer Francis to a skeptical group of meteorologists on the matter available at at YouTube:
And Wild Weather Dan Satterfield from the AGU Blogosphere is interpreting this all from climate-meteorological terms, referencing Dr Masters post, cited above: http://blogs.agu.org/wildwildscience/2012/11/01/what-those-who-understand-atmospheric-physics-are-talking-about-after-sandy/
(The “AGU” is the American Geophysical Union. I should specify that I am a member of the AGU, the American Statistical Association, and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers or “IEEE”, but, of course, the only person responsible for the comments and remarks of mine here is me.)
well, jan, looks like you’ll have to take your caution to Bloomberg Businessweek; their new cover says:
‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid’
Two points: first, on lying and trust, see Rick Perlstein’s article, “The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism,” in The Baffler
Perlstein’s point is that lying is a kind of initiation rite into the conservative elite.”Closing the sale, after all, is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher.”
Second, on what standard of scientific conclusiveness should govern OUR discourse on climate and weather events, I would refer to Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, the precautionary principle:
“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Why should our advocacy for action on climate change adhere to a more rigorous standard of scientific certainty than government action is supposed to?
We don’t really need the Precautionary Principle. Some won’t buy it. All we need to realize is that Science needn’t be certain about these things in order for their projections to be useful. See L. A. Smith, N. Stern, “Uncertainty in science and its role in climate policy”, Phil.Trans.Roy.Soc.A, 2011, http://www.lorentzcenter.nl/lc/web/2011/460/presentations/Smith.pdf
Well, regardless of whether “some won’t buy it” it was adopted by 130 nations 20 years ago. Basically, the precautionary principle says “science needn’t be certain to be useful” so why would you want to brush off a formal international declaration as “unnecessary”.
Or, as Bloomberg just wrote in endorsing Obama:
“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
Another paraphrase of the precautionary principle.
there’s always that call for leaders to “take immediate action”, whether it be from Bloomberg or outspoken advocates like Hansen…
so what action is it that we should take? shut down the coal plants & ration electrcity? punitive taxes on auto & air travel? ban home heating and air conditioning? cause those are the primary sources of co2 emissions; what are we willing to do without?
“what are we willing to do without?”
Where do you want me to begin? Without going into too much pedantic detail we could start with real life cycle cost pricing for petroleum products. That means people who buy the products have to pay the costs of disposing of them harmlessly instead of socializing the cost of their private consumption. Without those huge market distortions public goods would be much cheaper and private consumption much more expensive. Economists call it “externalities” but in reality it is a form of socialism for the biggest corporations, particularly the oil companies.
@Sandwichman, I certainly agree that there should be a Pete Stark-style carbon tax, no exceptions. I never trusted cap-and-trade. I like the tax because it lets the market sort out how to deal with the problem.
Hey, Sandwichman, this is Jan’s wife Claire. I am surprised to see such a long discussion about his post! We had an animated dinner table discussion about the potential ill effects of his post last night, and i consoled myself by figuring that nobody would read it 🙂 It’s great to see such thoughtful discussion about it. You took my perspective and conveyed it more articulately than I did 🙂
He and i are both avid environmentalists who are rather horrified by what our species is doing to its home, but we have different approaches to trying to “solve” it. We agreed to disagree, and continue to fight the good fight together.
I hope Jan hangs around and posts some more. It was an interesting read even though I could not add to it. If you are up to writing also, please join and have Dan Crawford. We welcome this type of dialogue.
Sandwichman is one of those I like to read on Labor as he does make some rather good arguments much to dismay of establishment economists.
Quark Soup‘s David Appell on “Fashionable Apocalypses”: http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2012/11/fashionable-apocalypses.html
an infographic on US coal exports…
one fact: “US coal exports to Europe have increased a whopping 92% in 2011 from 2010”
obama’s buddy buffett has a big stake in the powder river basin, and owns the railroads necessary to get it to the west coast…
just found this over at mark thoma’s links; linguistics prof George Lakoff:
Global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy – Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy — and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation. Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.