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Hurricane Sandy is Our Difficult Wake Up Call

J. Mijin Cha

As the East Coast starts to recover from Hurricane Sandy, one begins to wonder whether this is the new norm? Going forward, will stronger, more intense storms continually batter the East Coast? Unfortunately, that seems likely to be the case without meaningful comprehensive action to combat climate change. Days of blackouts, massive economic losses, and increased fatalities could become business as usual as seas rise and hurricanes gain in intensity.

We’ve written before about the economic impact of climate change, particularly for states. Hurricane Sandy shows us just how bad it can be. The economic losses from the hurricane are estimated at $50 billion, hundreds of thousands of households are still without power, and transit systems are struggling to return operations. And, as bad as it was on the East Coast, Sandy devastated the Caribbean, particularly Haiti where dozens of people were killed and at least 70 percent of the crops in the southern part of the country were destroyed.

Despite the clear impacts, climate advocates still struggle in the wake of far-reaching natural disasters to counter the claims by climate skeptics that refuse to see how something like Hurricane Sandy is related to climate change. George Lakoff addresses this issue and provides a clear explanation: events like the hurricane are systemically caused by climate change, like how smoking causes cancer. Systemic causation is different from direct causation, where there is an immediate link between an action and a result, like breaking a window by throwing a rock through it. Yet, the causation link still remains.

The efforts of the fossil fuel lobby are almost parallel to the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry spent endless time and money trying to convince the public that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. And, at first, they were successful. Over time, however, as more studies came out detailing the dangers of smoking and cancer rates increased, public opinion began to change. When Gallup first began asking the question in 1954, only 45 percent of people thought smoking caused cancer. By 1999, over 90 percent of people polled thought smoking caused cancer. Now, we are seeing the same exact same trend with fossil fuels. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe in climate change, even though there is complete climate silence on the national political stage.

Not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer. However, everyone can agree that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and taking steps to stop smoking are encouraged and supported. Likewise, not every hurricane or weather event will be exacerbated by climate change. But, the risk is high enough to encourage and support efforts to minimize the risk, which means doing everything we can to decrease our carbon emissions. A comprehensive renewable energy effort coupled with decreased energy consumption is the equivalent of stopping a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.

Like smoking, we can take action to reduce our risk, we don't have to sit back in helplessness. We just need some political leadership and courage.