Hurricane Sandy caused immense destruction along its path through the Caribbean and eventually upon impact on the East Coast of the US. It was the second major storm originating in the tropics that hit New York City and its environs in as many years; a very unusual occurrence. First reported estimates of the material damage caused by Sandy in the US amount to some US$20 billion, while tens of human lives have also been lost. Things would have been worse had the national and local authorities not given advance warning, including evacuation orders for certain places, and had they not mobilized significant civil defences, and search and rescue resources. It pays to be developed, and even if the price per unit of damage is high, the relatively low loss of life is highly rewarding by itself.
Something that officials and usually vocal politicians seem to avoid touching, though, is the possible causes of this catastrophic natural phenomenon. One would expect it to be completely out of character for America not to look for the origins of a disaster and rather attribute it passively to a whim of nature. However, despite Sandy, and Irene and earlier Katrina, speaking of climate change, caused by humans or otherwise, seems to be a taboo in free-speech-promoting America, especially during the final stages of a Presidential election campaign. Instead of the real world and its challenges that need to be addressed, what seems to be predominant is a kind of political correctness that serves nobody, in the medium and long-term at least. And it is true, unfortunately, that evoking climate change would probably restart one of America’s cultural wars, with emotional reactions, rather than a matter-of-fact analysis of a natural phenomenon, which is what is needed.
It is not about using this disaster to force the US to go along with whatever is proposed internationally in terms of climate change action, although it would not be bad if it did play a more constructive role in that regard. It is about the US and its people facing up to a real challenge that affects them, and which happens to also affect the rest of the world, as it is of a global nature. What better – even if sad – opportunity to educate people about the need to adapt to and mitigate climate change, to their own benefit first and foremost?
In terms of adaptation, it is obvious that urban and suburban planning, flood barriers, electricity production and distribution, public transportation and other infrastructural adjustments are needed to avoid incurring similarly high costs from such events in the future. As far as mitigation is concerned, the question about reducing greenhouse gas emissions has to be put squarely on the table, as it cannot be wished away through misplaced political correctness.
Even if they do not particularly care about the poorer parts of the world, where the destruction of lives and livelihoods may be higher but is not valued as much in economic terms, developed countries, the US prominently among them, should consider the impact on their own people of doing nothing. Destruction of lives and livelihoods and large financial losses cannot be allowed to continue because of a refusal to call a problem a problem. Avoiding to look into the root causes and work on solutions will not wish away future disasters. If this irresponsible approach continues, then we are all doomed, as the destructive effects of climate change will indeed prove inevitable…
Ixelles, 31 October 2012
PS: It is encouraging to see that at least the political leadership of New York City and New York State, responding to the realities of super-storm Sandy, have now put climate change clearly on the public agenda. Hopefully it will reach even higher levels, as well as the public at large, for a long-overdue discussion and decisions for action.
GK, 2 November 2012