Waves crash into a seawall during the "Long Island Express" hurricane of 1938, which hit the New York City region and caused extreme damage on parts of Long Island and New England.

Elections 2012: Climate Change Largely Missing From Election … Until Sandy?

Mark Trahant
10/29/12

Hurricane Sandy is a deadly reminder that the world is changing. The dreadful storm also highlights the one topic that has been near off-limits this election year: Climate change.

Both candidates have talked about energy – and the need for more – but much less about the changing climate in a country dependent on fossil fuels.

The Keystone XL Pipeline, for example, has been largely debated on economic issues or local environmental concerns instead of the larger issue of climate change. However President Barack Obama (who’s a firm maybe when it comes to the pipeline) told Indian Country Today Media Network that climate change was one factor in the consideration. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has been consistent. “We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know,” he said.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a metaphor for the larger debate. By itself, the pipeline is not likely to alter global warming directly. But if it is built, it represents a commitment to continuing with fossil fuels over alternatives. Or, making the case, stopping the pipeline sends a message that there has been a shift in the values debate regarding the environment.

That’s why “building the pipeline keeps us in the carbon habit, through which the U.S. burns roughly 20 million barrels of oil a day along with copious quantities of coal and natural gas,” says David Biello in Scientific American podcast. “Ending our fossil fuel addiction is the only way to truly combat climate change.”

On that point there is a clear distinction between the two candidates. Romney has ridiculed Obama’s support of alternative energy.

So does Hurricane Sandy change the debate? Is climate change now at least into the conversation (with only a week to go)?

Internationally there is concern that the United States electorate is not even looking at the scope of the problem realistically.

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, whose foundation works on climate justice issues, recently was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, saying: “I wish that some of the deniers from this country would actually go and spend a week in some of the communities that I’m in frequently, where the rains don’t come any more, or there’s prolonged drought and then flash-flooding. ... The climate shocks in poor communities are very, very significant. It does bother me when I hear people who have no perception of that denying that the climate is changing.”

Hurricane Sandy, it would seem, might shift the discourse. However, I should now say, that it is impossible to link Hurricane Sandy with climate change. Directly, that is. But, and this is important, this monster storm is consistent with climate change models.

The EPA’s climate change scientists put it this way (before this storm): “The intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase as the ocean warms. Climate models project that for each 1.8°F increase in tropical sea surface temperatures the rainfall rates of hurricanes could increase by 6-18 percent and the wind speeds of the strongest hurricanes could increase by about 1-8 percent. There is less confidence in projections of the frequency of hurricanes, but the global frequency of tropical hurricanes is likely to decrease or remain essentially unchanged.”

Another factor to watch over time is the rising sea-level. This impacts the storm surge – one that is predicted to be powerful during Sandy – as well as every day life in coastal areas.

EPA says “assuming that these historical geological forces continue, a 2-foot rise in global sea level by 2100 would result in the following relative sea level rise: 2.3 feet at New York City; 2.9 feet at Hampton Roads, Virginia; 3.5 feet at Galveston, Texas; 1 foot at Neah Bay in Washington state.”

Flood Zones for Hurricane Sandy

Last April a report in NASA warned about a storm like Sandy. “Rising sea level alone is expected to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of coastal flooding. The one-in-100 year event — a flood having a recurrence probability of once per century — is a common measure of flood risk. The GCM-based sea level rise shrinks the return period for the one-in-100 year flood to once in 15 to 35 years by the 2080s. The return interval for the one-in-10 year flood event is reduced to once in 1 to 3 years. Possible changes in storms themselves are not included in this analysis, due to uncertainty in how storm characteristics may alter in the future,” the research brief said.

“For New York City, a higher average sea level would exacerbate street, basement, and sewer flooding and create more frequent transportation disruptions. It would increase rates of beach erosion, necessitating additional beach nourishment programs,” the research brief said. “Saltwater would encroach further on freshwater sources, potentially causing structural damage to infrastructure and compromising some drinking water sources on Long Island.”

Most of the climate debate, so far, has been about reducing the threat from carbon-based emissions. That could soon change. A second strategy is to invest more into “flexible adaptation” or higher sea walls, potentially mass relocation, and creating new agricultural zones.

Along those lines tonight in New York City there was supposed to be a panel at Columbia’s Earth Institute on “enhancing society’s ability to understand and manage the impacts of climate variability and change. We will look at predictions, projections, tools and programs from disasters relief, agricultural and urban perspectives – as well as investigate what stakeholders can do to improve the process of using science to influence decisions.”

It’s postponed, of course. Blame the severe weather.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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