Sipping from Fire Hose of Superstorm Sandy’s ‘Teachable Moment’

Media and bloggers post numerous commentaries on Superstorm Sandy’s connection to a warmer climate, and on communications lessons-learned.

Sandy’s last surge had barely begun to crest when climate geeks beyond the storm’s wide-ranging cross hairs began assessing the potential links to climate change.

An early lesson from this particular “teachable moment” — although not necessarily a surprising one: Disregard those with the most unequivocal and un-nuanced assessments. They’re the ones at the poles maintaining, on the one hand, that there is simply no cause and effect correlation whatsoever; and, on the other, that AGW, plain and simple, flat-out caused SS (anthropogenic global warming caused Superstorm Sandy).

Simple it surely is not, but merely applying that filter winnows out the blowhards and bloviators and focuses one’s attention on those analyses truly deserving attention. That’s a start, but only a start, for there already is building a substantial body of substantive and insightful commentary and analysis well worth one’s attention.

From a weather/climate straight-news standpoint, Associated Press science correspondent Seth Borenstein early reported scientists’ by-now familiar point that no single storm can be conclusively linked to climate change. That in itself is a meme that some respected scientists and academics are beginning to think has run its course. The AP story quickly added that “some individual parts of Sandy and its wrath seem to be influenced by climate change.”

That AP story pointed to sea levels around New York nearly a foot higher than they were 100 years ago. It added that the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean is about 2 degrees warmer on average than a century ago …. “Warm water fuels hurricanes,” the piece noted.

What’s more, Sandy “zipped north along a warmer-than-normal Gulf Stream,” AP reported, based on comments it got from The Weather Channel/Weather Underground’s highly regarded Jeff Masters.

“After years of disagreement, climate scientists and hurricane experts have concluded that as the climate warms, there will be fewer total hurricanes,” AP reported. “But those storms that do develop will be stronger and wetter.” While clearly drawing a connection to the warmer planet, the Borenstein story for AP also quoted Texas A&M climate professor Gerald North as saying that although parts of Sandy seem connected to global warming, “mostly it’s natural, I’d say it’s 80, 90 percent natural.”

Climate Change as ‘Accomplice in the Crime’

With New York leading politicians — Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — adding their own meaty news nuggets to perpetuate the climate change/Sandy story, others in traditional and online media outlets contributed with often-insightful analyses of their own:

  • Climate Central science writer Andrew Freedman on November 1, after stipulating the “no single storm can be directly attributed” caveat, wrote that “What is already clear, however, is that climate change very likely made Sandy’s impacts worse than they otherwise would have been.” He pointed to higher sea level rise, abnormally warm sea surface temperatures, and “an unusual weather pattern that some scientists think bore the fingerprint of rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice.” ”If this were a criminal case,” Freedman wrote, “detectives would be treating global warming as a likely accomplice in the crime.”
  • New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin, on his blog and on a local WNYC talk radio program. cautioned that “to say that this was our fault is going way beyond the science.” Revkin’s Dot Earth blog contains numerous worthwhile postings on the continuing climate change/Sandy dialogue, including one on what he refers to as “reverse tribalism.” In a piece headlined “Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement on Climate Change,” Revkin reports the views of British climate communications campaigner George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network.

The ‘Elephant in the Room’ Emerges

  • Writing for PRI’s “The World,” produced by BBC, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston, writer Peter Thomson wrote of the unmentionable “elephant in the room” until climate change, via Sandy, “thrust itself into the campaign in a way that could even alter the outcome.” (Post-election voter surveys indicate that Thomson’s speculation was more well-founded than at first might have appeared the case.) He noted Mayor Bloomberg’s late endorsement of President Barack Obama largely on grounds of Obama’s stronger-than-Mitt-Romney approach on climate change. “Neither candidate seems to feel there’s any political advantage in taking it on one way or the other, still,” Thomson wrote, adding that the candidates and “journalists in general — especially political journalists — still don’t understand the seriousness of the climate crisis.” He wrote of a fellow journalists’ plea for “crisis-level coverage” of the issue … “you ‘flood the zone.’ You shift resources. You make hard choices . . . [or else] you are failing to treat the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced like the crisis that it is. Why?”
  • Speculation on the potential impact of a Superstorm Sandy/climate change connection was not limited to media in the U.S. The New Zealand Herald, two days before the November 6 U.S. election, headlined a piece: “U.S. Presidential Election: Climate Change on the Agenda.” It reported Mayor Bloomberg’s climate change rationale for endorsing Obama and added that “Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Thursday maintained his silence on the subject when speaking of Sandy’s victims — even after a heckler pressed him on the subject during a rally in Virginia.” A questioner in Romney’s audience, having shouted “What about climate? What about climate?” was “immediately booed by the crowd, who ejected him to chants of  ’USA! USA!,’” the paper reported, in a piece distributed by Agence France Presse, the French news agency.

It will take academic researchers hours and hours to thoroughly digest and analyze the reams written about climate change communications and “Superstorm Sandy,” including commentaries such as that posted elsewhere here by Berkeley linguist and climate activist George Lakoff, certain to raise hackles across wide spectrums of opinion.

What’s clear at this point is that the teachable moment provided by Sandy, with its proximity to the U.S. presidential election, has indeed inspired extensive and worthwhile consideration of the climate communications challenges being weighed by scientific and nonscientific communities. It all may feel to some like trying to sip from a fire hose.

Assuming, however, that it’s more than cogitation for the sake of cogitation and that it all leads to timely and well informed considerations of mitigation and adaptation strategies, that could be one good thing — and perhaps the only good thing given the extent of the ravages and pains inflicted — to come out of Superstorm Sandy’s unwelcome and untimely visit. That’s part of the challenge lying ahead.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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