Hurricane Sandy has proven to be a wake-up call about the potential dangers posed by climate change, and it’s even possible – though by no means certain – that we won’t just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep as the images of destruction in New York and New Jersey begin to fade.
Assuming we stay awake, however, there’s a question about what we’ll do with our new awareness (a mere 25 years or so after climate change first hit the news in a major way). Since the early 1990s, at least, scientists, environmentalists and world leaders have called repeatedly for climate mitigation – that is, reductions in emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in order to stave off global warming. That was also the major focus of the UN-sponsored treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997.
It makes a lot of sense: better to start eating healthy foods now rather than gorge on cheeseburgers and fries and treat your heart attack when it finally comes. But for many of us, cheeseburgers, like cheap, fossil fuel-based energy, are very seductive. That’s why the climate concerned have downplayed talk of adapting to global warming by shoring up our defenses against rising seas and other dangers. As Michael Lind wrote at thebreakthrough.org:
“Rather as peace activists during the Cold War discouraged talk about civil defense, lest it make nuclear war seem more thinkable, many Greens seem to believe that discussing adaptation would reduce support for mitigation, which they hope will be driven by a public sense of urgency if not panic.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have continued to mount, temperatures have kept rising and sea level has inched inexorably upward. Now Hurricane Sandy, along with this summer’s crushing drought in the US and plenty of other climate disasters are quite plausibly the first inklings of the heart attacks to come.
Public officials are rightly responding to the emergency in front of them at the moment, not to the underlying causes. They’re talking about storm surge barriers, sea walls and other protective measures that could cost billions, but which could save billions more in future damage.
It would be crazy not to start talking seriously about such measures, given that the outliers of coming climate disasters have already begun to happen, and places like New York City and South Florida had started planning long before Sandy or Irene showed up. So have a number of coastal cities around the world.
But the greatest barrier to cutbacks in greenhouse gases has been economic: if we stop burning cheap fossil fuels, or capture their emissions, it will make energy more expensive, at least in the short run. Politicians simply haven’t been willing to ask for that kind of sacrifice today to stave off that heart attack down the road.
If we’re now going to spend billions on adaptation, how likely is it that they’ll keep calling for emissions reductions as well? It could be that in a perverse way, Hurricane Sandy, the drought and other climate disasters could push those reductions into some indefinite future – and make the climate problem even worse than it might otherwise have been.