Superstorm ‘Sandy’ tells us why the climate change denial must stop

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

I start this blog on climate politics as tropical superstorm Sandy expends its fury on the eastern coast of the US. The satellite imagery shows the movement of the gathering storm as it builds and breaks over land, bringing with it massive destruction and massive upheaval in the wealthiest and most powerful nation of the world. It speaks of the extraordinary power of nature and should leave us  both shocked, at the possibilities of destruction, and in awe of its sheer force. This is the shock and awe that we need to know more about.

Sandy hits just days before the US goes to polls. The 2012 presidential elections have been remarkable in its deafening silence over climate change. This time the 'C' word has not been uttered. Even now, with this extreme weather event throwing life out of gear, links with climate change are spoken in hushed voices. The few who talk about it are quickly dismissed saying that there is no definitive and conclusive evidence that such events are not natural disasters.

It was different the last time the US went to polls in 2008. Then, candidates of both parties–Democrats and Republicans–wanted to claim the climate championship. This competitive politics was based on the preceding events–the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report; the Nobel Prize shared with former US vice-president Al Gore; and the 2005 horrific Katrina typhoon, which drowned New Orleans. This phase of climate-advocacy culminated with the Copenhagen Conference of Parties meet in 2009. This is when in the heady early days of President Barack Obama's election victory there was hope in the air–the US government had promised to take leadership on climate matters and to take its responsibility seriously.

But the Copenhagen conference changed all this forever. As I wrote from the bitterly cold and hostile environment of the Danish capital, “the Copenhagen conference will definitely go down as the worst meeting in global climate negotiations”. At this meeting, the real objective of the Obama administration became clear. It was to take leadership, but not to build an effective multilateral agreement to combat climate change. The aim was to demolish the current agreement and to build a coalition of the willing–a club of big polluters who would keep the status quo intact. This move destroyed the little trust that existed between countries on this intractable matter of how the world will share common atmospheric and economic space.

The bloody aftermath came with the concerted campaign to destroy the public credibility of the science and scientists who stood for climate change. The attack on IPCC became messy, dirty and personal. In all this, the public faith–at least in countries like the US–was seemingly shaken and confidence was lost. The results are here for all of us to see. Now, when the effects of climate change–as predicted and anticipated by science–are beginning to show up, there is hushed silence.

This climate of denial is dangerous and foolish. We need to know more and we need to know more in the ways that only science can tell us–in dispassionate ways based on evidence and projections.

But we also need to understand that these are unusual times. We need to work with the science of climate change. We need to give its scientists a patient hearing and some latitude.

The fact is that climate change science is young, being tutored and evolving. We know much more today about what the future will hold if we do not reduce emissions drastically. Yet our knowledge is still probabilistic. It concerns changes we can model for climate sensitivity, using the best evidence we have today. But all models are victims of their assumptions. And all predictions are villains of their times.

In many ways climate change science, because of its many variables and very many scenarios, is a game of chess, which can only be played by investigative and highly inquisitive minds. The scientist will get clues and the answers will have to be tweaked: from scientific evidence, from plain common sense and from what can be observed in the real world. In the ordinary world it is not in the nature of science to do this kind of imaginative, investigative research. It is certainly not in the manner of science to draw inferences when there is uncertainty. In the easiest of times, scientists find it against their nature to cross over the threshold, from what is an already established science to what is an emerging science. They prefer to play safe with what they know. In the case of climate science, they already prefer to be cautious in their words, very conservative in their assessment and take refuge in the inherent uncertainty of science.

But the viciousness of the attack even against the already conservative has pushed scientists underground. Now we are the losers. We don’t get to know more or engage in the learning of the changes. We don’t get to understand what is beginning to happen in the world that we live in and the world our children will inherit. This is when we know that change is afoot. We know that the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is up and is devastating our world.

The only one good that can come from tropical storm Sandy is if we stop allowing the science of climate change to be discredited or dismissed. It is time we heard the news with the subtext intact.


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  • The following is posted on a

    The following is posted on a similar discussion in The New York Time, Environment section:

    When our mind is set towards a pre-conceived notion, we try to attribute everything to that. It is exactly what is seen in Miller and others perception of climate change and hurricanes occurrences. They try to use climate change as de-facto global warming. This itself is a fallacious misnomer and thus leading to misleading perceptions on the weather incidents.

    Climate change has several components that influence weather at local, regional, national and global scales, namely extremes, cyclic variations & trends. Extremes & Cyclic variations form part of natural variations. In addition to these man induced variations such as ecological changes in terms of land use and land cover at local and regional scale effect weather at those scales and thus create trend, either it may be increasing or decreasing in several meteorological parameters.

    These natural variations are modified by manÔÇÖs actions on nature. However, we must note that these natural variations are not the same in each cycle. Take the case of 11-year cycle in sunspots or solar flares ÔÇô each 11-year cycle has different magnitude in its peaks. Same is the case with weather parameters. We all know with the Full Moon tidal waves surge inland words with high tides. On the occasion of present hurricane as well our Indian cyclone coincidentally it is Full Moon day. I myself studied this in early 1960s -- phases of the Moon vs rainfall.

    Atlantic Basin Hurricane counts (1851 ÔÇô 2006) 5-year running means of major Hurricanes, Hurricanes and U.S. Land falling Hurricanes present a 60-year cycle similar to all-India Southwest monsoon rainfall. The current cycle started around 1987 and continue up to around 2046 in which first 30 year period is above the average pattern ends by 2016 and next 30 years will be below the average pattern -- presented in my book "climate change: myths& realities".

    Each storm is independent with others. It varies with point of origin and its path. Without looking at these issues one can not simply compare and attribute it to global warming. In a dry year temperature rises and in wet year temperature falls. The temperature is not directly related to storm strength or weakness. Let me present few facts on Bay of Bengal cyclonic activity. During southwest monsoon season -- June to September, more depressions are formed with less severe cyclonic storms. In summer (April & May) period more severe cyclonic storms are formed over June to September period but the fact is more severe cyclonic storms over April to May period are formed in October to December -- northeast monsoon season -- with colder temperatures. This clearly brings out the fact that the general circulation patterns over different parts play vital role in local weather events. Unless, one understands the overall nature of general circulation issues, it is futile to attribute every unusual event to global warming that mislead the research priorities. It is therefore, not correct to attribute events to unknown things or proven things. One can do research but not blindly motivate the events and create confusion to forecasters of weather.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

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