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

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 30 October 2012

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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