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Will Superstorm Sandy put climate change back on the political radar?

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Image: ForecastTheFacts/Flickr

In recent years the world has experienced a sequence of climate-change-related disasters. Hurricane Sandy comes on top of massive drought through the summer that has led to 40 per cent loss of American corn and other grain crops, raging wildfires in the southeast U.S., tornados and derechos, etc. -- and that is just the U.S. Check out this extreme weather timeline for other global events of note in 2012 (and it is also worth noting that Sandy had a death toll in the Caribbean before landing in the U.S.).

Based on previous disasters, we can anticipate that the economic losses from Hurricane Sandy will be in the tens of billions of dollars, and could even top $100 billion. Perhaps 40 per cent of that will be covered by insurance. And of course there are personal and social costs from death, evacuations and loss of homes that are not counted in those numbers. The insurance industry tells us, and the science confirms, that multi-billion dollar damages from extreme weather events are becoming more common, in part because there are more people with more valuable assets, but also because a warmer climate has increased the frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

Here is the grey-suited Insurance Bureau of Canada, in a report on extreme weather earlier this year:

There is increasing evidence around the world that the frequency and severity of severe weather is on the rise. In Canada, the recent spike in extreme weather-related events has resulted in social and economic consequences for individuals, governments, and home and business insurers around the country.  …

In Canada, on average, temperatures warmed by more than 1.3°C between 1948 and 2007, a rate of warming that was about twice the global average. The national average temperature for the year 2010 was 3.0°C above normal, which makes it the warmest year on record since nationwide records began in 1948. Canada has also become wetter during the past half century, with mean precipitation across the country increasing by about 12 per cent. On average, Canada now experiences 20 more days of rain compared with the 1950s. These changes to the climate are likely responsible, at least in part, for the rising frequency and severity of extreme weather events in Canada, such as floods, storms and droughts, because warmer temperatures tend to produce more violent weather patterns. …

Insurers have seen first-hand the financial impacts of severe weather, as insured losses from natural catastrophes have ranged between $10B and $50B a year internationally over the past decade and in 2011 topped $100 B. In Canada, catastrophic events cost roughly $1.6B in 2011 and almost $1B in each of the two previous years. The majority of these insured losses were caused by extreme weather events, but Canada's home and business insurers are also seeing an increase in claims resulting from smaller weather events that nevertheless result in significant property damage for consumers.

We now live in a world that is warmer: meaning real impacts in the here and now, not theorized consequences for polar bears many decades down the road. It's like a baseball player on steroids, turning a routine fly-out at the warning track into a home run. To use another favoured analogy, climate change has "loaded the dice" towards more extreme events, whether they are hot and dry, or wet and stormy, whether they are season-long (like flooding in the U.K.) or discrete events.

Alas, the mainstream media have largely failed to connect the dots between climate change, extreme weather and fossil fuel industries. Last night on CTV news I even saw an ad for Shell and the oil sands come right after the latest update on the storm. In terms of actual reporting, there are some outlets like FOX News that seemingly fail to make the connection deliberately, but for the most part I think this is benign neglect. Still, breathless business stories about the latest oil and gas "play" almost never mention climate change. This failure to inform public debate that is astonishing, given that climate change is biggest overarching challenge of our times.

In light of that abrogation of responsible journalism, perhaps it is not surprising that climate change has disappeared as a substantive policy issue in North America. The heady days of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and the push towards climate action in places like B.C. (even as far as the U.S. Congress) now seem a fading dream. The Onion wrapped it up nicely with its story, "Report: Global Warming Issue From 2 Or 3 Years Ago May Still Be Problem."

It has been a puzzle to me why climate action is seen as such a dog politically. Sure, in coal, oil and gas we are up against the most profitable industries in the world -- witness the presidential debates where climate change did not even come up from the candidates or the moderators, and both Obama and Romney seemed to falling over each other in a bid to be the BFF of fossil fuel producers. In Canada, too, our political class has taken a position of ducking the issue whenever possible (with some rare exceptions at the municipal level). At best, Canadian politicians recognize the problem (rather than denying it) in the abstract but propose nothing of consequence to change course.

In contrast, openly speaking to the hard truths of climate change and offering solutions is a political opportunity that invokes frames of leadership, responsibility, innovation and the prospect of a new economic agenda. Investments in buildings, transportation and infrastructure for a low-carbon and more resilient economy are a better deal in terms of jobs and a decent future than environmentally destructive tar sands pipelines and LNG plants.

In the wake of tragedy, perhaps change can come. Obviously, the immediate concern is getting through the storm then cleaning up and restoring basic services. After, we need to have an adult conversation about climate change and how we are going to deal with this enormous collective action problem. I'd love to see an all-party pact to agree on targets and timelines for GHG emission reductions, leaving the political debate to how we get there. The next round of international climate negotiations will occur in late-November to early-December in Doha, and there we will find out if Sandy has had any impact on putting climate action back on the table.

Image: ForecastTheFacts/Flickr

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