Sandy link to climate change questioned

Hurricane
Photo by Emma Goldberg.

A week after Yale students huddled in their dorms under a Hurricane Sandy campus-wide curfew, some, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have begun to blame the late-October hurricane on climate change.

But while the theory that Sandy’s strength was a solely a result of climate change has gained traction, few climate researchers attribute the magnitude of last week’s hurricane — which saw winds up to 110 mph and 185 deaths — just to global warming. Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use change at the U.S. Geological Survey, said that climate change most likely played a role in the enormous scale of the storm, but it was not the only contributing factor.

“Right now, people want to assume that everything bad happening is due to climate change,” Yale professor of forest policy Robert Mendelsohn GRD ’78 said. “But if you actually look at the power of recent storms, this decade has not been atypical. Sandy was not that unusual.”

Sandy’s destruction could be the result of a combination of atmospheric warming, sea level rise and natural variability, Burkett said. Another factor that contributed to Sandy’s destructiveness was the dense development along the East Coast, she added.

Most climate scientists agree that over the next century, climate change will cause weather conditions to grow more extreme. Powered by warm seawater, hurricanes are expected to worsen as climate change leads to higher global temperatures, increasing in intensity by 5 percent by the end of the century. But Mendelsohn said that Hurricane Sandy was not related to climate change because it was not a particularly intense storm.

Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory said that establishing a link between Sandy and climate change is particularly difficult because his research has found that global warming may in fact lead to fewer hurricanes, as shifts in wind patterns resulting from climate change may lower the frequency and power of storms over the next century.

If the link between storm intensity and global warming were to be established, political scientists are hopeful that policymakers will prioritize climate change legislation.

Yale assistant professor of environmental and energy economics Kenneth Gillingham said that policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions could lower the probability of intense storms and decrease global warming.

“The U.S. alone is large enough to make some difference,” Gillingham said.

Environmental governance professor Benjamin Cashore warned that in order to impact the nation’s long-term attitude toward climate change, citizens should advocate for structural changes within the U.S. government to allow it to better fight rising temperatures and sea levels. Cashore cited the example of nations such as Australia that have created independent scientific committees that advise the government on environmental policy.

“Focusing solely on what our policymakers will or won’t do misses larger critical factors about the political environment that we’re working in,” Cashore said. “It’s not a question of whether politicians are listening — the larger point is whether we can create institutions that will allow us to tend to our nation’s long-term interests, especially regarding the environment.”

Hurricane Sandy inflicted an estimated $50 billion of economic damage.

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