Superstorm Sandy washes away climate of doubt

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Even though the U.S. presidential campaign has entirely ignored climate change, the former Hurricane Sandy has put it back at the forefront of people’s minds. Graham Readfearn reports.

Image of then Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012 (image courtesy NASA).

AFTER BATTERING the coast and flooding lower Manhattan, the former-Hurricane Sandy has claimed more than 60 lives in Caribbean countries and, in the latest report to hand, the death toll has reached 33 in the United States, with hundreds more injured or requiring rescue.

The superstorm is poised to cause $20 billion worth of physical damage, and up to $50 billion in further economic losses in the United States. More than 8 million people are without electricity and New York’s financial district has been closed for two days. The storm has also caused the worst damage in the New York's subway system's 108-year history, with no sign as to when it might be working again. It has even caused the presidential campaign to be put on hold.

We can only hope that more lives won’t be lost, though this seems a vain wish.

It may seem insensitive to mention the billions of dollars of damage the storm will cause. It might also, to some, seem insensitive to mention human-caused climate change at a time like this.

But given that neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama had the courage, the foresight or the necessary leadership qualities to be able to mention the issue in their official debates, I’d say their insensitivity is far greater than any which a freelance journo and blogger across the Pacific may be able to muster.

But the evidence would suggest that it is reckless to ignore the hand which burning coal (some of it Australia’s), oil and gas and tearing down forests has had on this storm and is having on extreme weather events across the world.

Adding billions of tonnes of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year is loading the climate dice. When you roll the dice, the chances of getting extremes such as droughts, heatwaves and floods increase.

In The Conversation, scientist Gary W Yohe lists some of these recent extremes we’ve been witnessing, including the super-storm Sandy, and suggests that we’re now living in a climate which is transitioning to something for which we don’t have any yardstick from our recent past. This is, argues Yohe, not so much a ‘new normal’ but more a journey to somewhere much less predictable.

Writing for Mother Jones, Chris Mooney pulls together some of the ways that human activities have likely influenced Sandy, such as the unusually high sea temperatures in the Atlantic. ‘Warm oceans are jet fuel for hurricanes,’ writes Mooney.

Also on The Conversation, climate scientist Kevin Trenberth discusses the contribution of rising sea temperatures to Sandy’s muscular gait, while keeping a close eye on his wife and daughter as they evacuate New Jersey.

In an LA Times examination of the role of human-caused climate change in Sandy’s make-up, Trenberth adds that:
‘All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.’

In New York’s financial district, reports have come in of cars floating down Wall St. The next few days are uncertain.

But what you can guarantee is that climate science deniers will seek to downplay the role of climate change in events like Sandy, or in the US droughts, or the floods of recent years in Pakistan, Russia and Australia, or the tumbling of heat records across the US.

Late last week, PBS screened a documentary as part of their Frontline series called “Climate of Doubt” which looked at the ongoing campaign to demonise and misrepresent the science of climate change.

The show used the climate science denying think tank the Heartland Institute’s recent sixth conference on climate change as a hook. The show (watch below) interviewed many of the current protagonists of climate science denial ― the “scientists” and professionals who are paid to carry out this work to confuse and fool the public, intimidate climate scientists and push their own political agenda where fossil fuel corporations can operate with near impunity in a “free market”.

Watch Climate of Doubt on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

I recently catalogued the Australian supporters of Heartland’s climate science conferences for DeSmogBlog.  The PBS show also highlighted how rich conservative-leaning free market-loving individuals use a secretive slush fund to pay for the work of the climate denialists, an issue I also covered for DeSmogBlog earlier this ear.

Featured in the show is Dr Fred Singer, a retired physicist and one of the world’s most prominent science contrarians who once helped the tobacco industry to undermine the links between second-hand smoke and cancer.

Singer, currently an adviser to Australian climate sceptic group the Galileo Movement, was also hosted twice by Australia’s Institute for Public Affairs in the early 90s as the Melbourne-based free market think tank began to build its anti-climate science campaign, which continues to this day.

Also featured in the PBS documentary was Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which was another group active in helping to build early support for climate science denial in Australia.

The Cato Institute’s Pat Michaels, who once admitted that 40 per cent of his funding came from the fossil fuel industry, was also featured. Michaels is currently an advisor to the newly-formed Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. And of course, no documentary on climate science denial would be complete without a few sage words from the madcap Lord Christopher Monckton.

Broadly, it’s obvious what effect these orchestrated campaigns of doubt on climate science (and also attacks on renewable energies) are designed to have. They want to delay any laws that will help the developed and developing world to move away from what should be seen as a risk-laden fossil fuel habit. They also have a frenzied paranoia about socialism and communism.

They claim that environmental legislation is taking away people’s “freedoms”. I wonder if that includes the freedom to be evacuated from a massive storm, the freedom to have your crops wiped out by drought or the freedom to pay increased taxes to pay for clean-ups from “natural” disasters?

Before Hurricane Sandy hit, on Forbes’ Corporate Social Responsibility blog, Gregory Unruh asked if climate denialists would be seen in the future as having committed 'climate crimes against humanity'.

In my eyes, the answer to this is no. Because there are people who have the power to ignore their campaign. As storm system Sandy breaks American hearts, it puts the US Presidential campaigns on hold and brings Wall Street, a spiritual home for capitalism, to a standstill.

Will it be long enough for leaders like Obama, Cameron, Gillard and Jiabao to ask just where their “leadership” is taking us?

(This story was originally published on Graham Readfearn’s blog last night (30/10/12), and has been updated slightly by IA to include the latest information about the storm damage.

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