By now, the heartbreaking photos of neighborhoods swept to sea and a climbing death toll have reminded us all of the immeasurable pain and tragedy our environment can incur. We think of the millions of people who continue to be affected by the storm, the tens of thousands who have lost all that they own, and the hundreds who have lost their lives.
Sandy also tells us a lot about ourselves. From a pessimistic standpoint, it shows human failure: our failure to listen to those who understand far better than most of us do the impact of human behavior on the atmosphere, our climate system, and the ecosystems that surround us. While it is true that no singular weather event can be directly linked to human-caused global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – since its establishment in 1988 arguably the most thorough and meticulous scientific undertaking in human history – has reported with increasing confidence that weather extremes will become more frequent, more widespread, and more intense with rising greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s assessments, and those of many other leading scientific bodies, have led prominent commentators—among them Nobel laureates, prime ministers, presidents, secretary-generals, and even movie stars—to call out global warming as this century’s greatest threat. But Sandy demonstrates in dramatic fashion our inability to take more profound steps to tackle global challenges, despite our knowledge that we endanger ourselves if we don’t. Sandy reveals our refusal to take responsibility for our actions and our skepticism that real change (of natural systems as well as of our own behavior) is possible.
The storm devastated the Caribbean before heading up the East Coast of the United States, then turned inland and finally crawled all the way up to Canada, reminding us that climate change is a shared threat that knows no national boundaries. It will impact certain regions differently than others, but all of humanity will be affected. And all humans will need to act. The scientific mainstream agrees that, in order to prevent a warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (considered the absolute maximum of temperature increase without major disruptions to the climate system and many ecosystems), human-caused greenhouse gas emissions need to peak well before 2020, possibly 2015.
Putting aside the drama and hardship that Sandy has caused, from an objective, distanced—and obviously insensitive—perspective, a “Frankenstorm” is not much more than another extreme weather event in line with the more frequent, more widespread, and more intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and storms—not to mention the changes in rainfall patterns, glacier thawing, polar melting, ocean acidification, and species extinctions—that have already been observed in recent decades. Sandy illustrates what we cannot tire of emphasizing: if we don’t want our climate system to spin out of control entirely, to the point of no return, then efforts to change must be made in all sectors and on all levels of human activity and interaction. From the individual to the local, from states and provinces to nations, from the regional to the global: we need change—political, technical, and behavioral change—wherever it can be achieved, as quickly as it can be achieved.
Which brings us to the positive end of what Sandy tells us: the remarkable response that humans are able to make when confronted with the absolute necessity to act—from the Republican governor who, at the peak of an election campaign praises the disaster response of a Democratic president, to the people who fought to save another’s life when the storm struck, to the hundreds of thousands who are helping others, often strangers, cope with the abrupt changes that this catastrophe has brought. We can see that those communities that have begun to prepare for higher sea levels and stronger storms are faring better than those that didn’t believe this would be necessary. And despite our rapid nearing of the 2°C threshold, we should not forget how much worse the impacts of climate change might already be without the many actions that humans have taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This can—and should—make us believe that, after all, change is possible.
Alexander Ochs is the Director of the Climate and Energy Program at Worldwatch Institute