Code Orange: Superstorm Sandy, climate change, and security threats

by Rob Tiller

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the northeast earlier this week, Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn were caught in New York City. Their planned short fun visit turned into a week-long ordeal. They were staying in SoHo when the storm hit and their hotel lost power and water, and stores, restaurants, and transportation systems all closed down. Thousands of flights, including theirs, were cancelled.

My sweet Tillers eventually made their way to the upper West Side and found a down-market hotel to stay in until LGA came back online and they could get flights out. As I write this, millions are still without electricity, water, food, and transportation, and dealing with enormous personal and financial losses.

I expected that the superstorm would get climate change and what to do about it onto the front page. Could there be any more dramatic example of what rising seas and increasingly severe storms could do to our coastal population centers? Wouldn’t the climate change-deniers find it impossible to deny the reality of such a catastrophe?

But the superstorm showed once again how difficult it is to get this difficult conversation going. It is not an issue politicians or editors, or ordinary people for that matter, usually like to talk about. Why? Because it is disturbing and depressing. We don’t have a comprehensive solution, but we can be pretty sure addressing it will require massive funding and considerable sacrifice. Some are receptive to voices that tell us we don’t need to sacrifice, because science is not 100% certain (which it never is). Humans in general, and Americans in particular, are usually good at recognizing and addressing emergencies like sinking ships and burning buildings. But if we’re not entirely convinced there’s a real emergency that has a direct impact on us, we generally prefer to kick the can down the road, and think about more cheerful things.

While New York was in the midst of the huge storm, it struck me that this disaster could be compared to a terrorist attack, and that it might be a good idea to use that comparison as a conceptual tool. It seems reasonable to think of climate change as a security issue. Massive storms threaten our lives and economy in much the way that bombs do. In terms of financial loss and dislocation, Sandy was far worse all of the terrorist attacks we’ve ever seen.

And the vocabulary of security seems to be one that gets people’s attention and inspires action. We’ve probably gone overboard in exaggerating the threat of terrorist attacks, as I’m reminded every time I get on an airplane, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to address it.

To be sure, as to climate change, an important part of the worry is about the well-being of future generations, and it’s likely that most people give greater weight to the lives of living humans than to future ones. But as Superstorm Sandy showed dramatically, it’s also affecting us today.

Another thing that might help is basic science education. A lot of people don’t understand that science is in an important sense probabilistic. The most accurate conception we can ever form of nature includes a considerable range of uncertainty. There will never be a day when we can say with certainty that climate change was the sole or primary cause of a particular weather event, because of the inherent complexity of the ecosystem. But probabilities are also realities. Once the probability of rain gets high enough, we’ll take along an umbrella. If we can get a reasonable level of scientific literacy, we won’t use lack of complete certainty as an excuse for kicking the can down the road.