Somewhere in the midst of watching the Weather Channel's reporting on the approach of Superstorm Sandy, I was struck by the lack of meteorologists saying anything about what was behind the highly unusual phenomenon that was unfolding. Buried in a stream of "unprecedenteds" was the idea that a rather small late season hurricane that normally would have spun harmlessly off into the north Atlantic was about to be drawn into a winter low-pressure system. The two would combine to create a superstorm, a thousand miles in diameter, that would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage to the most populated area of the U.S.
The missing ingredient in nearly all the talk was an explanation of what a hurricane, even a small one, was doing in the North Atlantic at the end of October. The answer of course is global warming which—even though it has raised average ocean temperatures by only 1 degree F—has extended the hurricane season enough to produce this calamity. We should give CNN some credit for the day after the storm they called an array of climate scientists to find out what happened. All of the scientists pointed a finger directly at global warming and noted that the problem was only going to get worse and worse as the sea level was rising and the Arctic was melting much faster than had been predicted five years ago.
For years climate scientists have warned us that seemingly minor changes in global temperatures would lead to unusual weather events having serious consequences. They clearly got it right, for in the past decade we have had several major hurricanes that tore up Gulf oil production and nearly did in New Orleans and several other Gulf towns; outbreaks of tornados that flattened towns in the Midwest; floods in the Mississippi valley; droughts in Texas and the corn belt; blizzards on the East Coast; and two monster storms in a row slamming into the New York area.
When the phenomenon of global warming was figured out some 20 or 30 years ago, nearly everybody agreed that it sounded reasonable and that someday we would have to do something about it. The problem, of course, is that the "something" turned out to be major reductions in the use of fossil fuels. Needless to say, the fossil fuel industry had a problem with this as it implied the eventual contraction or even elimination of the industry. But there is more. All industrial economies depend heavily on fossil fuels for their existence. If your country is not currently burning vast quantities of the stuff, you sure would like to as it is seen as the only way to a "better life."
Because the standard forms of non-fossil fuels—wind, waves, solar, biofuels, nuclear—are currently more expensive and unlikely to be available in the quantities needed to replace fossil fuels without a significant economic contraction, a split developed between those concerned that fossil fuels will eventually kill us off and those more concerned with current economic growth. The problem that those concerned about global warming faced in explaining the danger was that its consequences seemed so distant that adults alive today did not really have to worry about anything serious happening in their lifetimes – or so they thought.
The first round of this dispute clearly went to the fossil fuel industry and their numerous allies. The competition was not really much of a contest for the growth advocates had the advantges of plenty of money and a public audience that was not really into scientific arguments. Recent polls show that the number of Americans who believe the earth is warming has fallen to 67 percent – down about 10 percentage points since 2006. Only 64 percent believe it is a serious problem.
This leads to the question. Just when will popular sentiment shift decisively in favor of reducing the use of fossil fuels? Part of the problem, of course, is that carbon emissions likely will have to be reduced substantially all over the world for many decades in order to have a significant impact on global warming. This is a major problem. For now, outside of the European Union, few nations have yet absorbed the seriousness of the problem and are not willing to give up prospects of a better immediate future in order to deal with a threat that might not materialize for decades. Most national leaders, be it in the US, Russia, China or anywhere else, govern with the implicit understanding that they will work tirelessly to improve the economic lot of their peoples – unfortunately for now this is the "prime directive" for most nations.
Short of a new technology that will produce energy more cheaply than fossil fuels and without carbon emissions or other bad side effects, we are back to the issue of just how bad extreme climate events have to get before the urgency of global warming outweighs economics. The problem is seeing that a drought in China is part of the same problem as a flood in Missouri and has to be dealt with by the same policies.
In the wake of this week's New York disaster, there has been a revival of talk about higher flood walls and flood-proofing buildings. These might be suitable for a few high value locations such as Manhattan, but when it comes to flood walling the earth's coastlines or even America's coastlines to deal with the sea level rises now projected for the next century it is highly impracticable.
It is difficult to say what will convince a critical mass of the people and their elected representatives that we have a very serious problem. Clearly a repetition of the same disaster, such as failure of America's grain crops for several years in a row, or an annual inundation of New York City would be a good impetus . We also have the problem of the widespread and ever-increasing costs of these global-warming induced disasters. Insurance companies are already feeling the pressures despite having passed on flood risks to government. Perhaps this will do the trick.
Image: Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen