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Did Hurricane Sandy Send a Climate Warning?

  • Joe DeCapua

Hurricane Sandy was the latest severe storm to batter the northeastern United States, disrupting power, communication and transportation and causing billions of dollars in damage. Sandy renewed debate about whether climate change is behind changing weather patterns. One scientist says those changes are being seen worldwide.


Elwyn Grainger-Jones calls it the never-ending question: is climate change responsible for storms becoming bigger and stronger?

“Scientists are pretty clear that the physics is such that if the world is warming, there’s a very strong likelihood that as the seas get warmer, storm intensity will increase. We may have the same number of storms as the past. They’ll get more powerful. That actually is what we've seen over the last 40 years – that the number of tropical storms, of hurricanes, has remained about the same in numbers, but they become a lot more powerful,” he said.

Grainger-Jones, director of the Environment and Climate Division at IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, put the situation in layman’s terms.

“The way I look at it is if scientists tell you that your house is probably going to be burning, do you say I need to know for certainty before I buy my home insurance and a fire extinguisher, or is that enough to invest in those things. And I think that’s what this storm is telling us. It’s an indication of what the future is going to become like,” he said.

Climate change projection models have forecast an increase in global temperatures by two to six degrees Celsius over the century. That may not sound like much, but according to the IFAD scientist it is.

“It will feel like a lot when it happens. There’s been quite a lot of research on what these temperatures translate to into real impacts for real people. The people that IFAD works with, the poor smallholder farmers, this is just devastating for their livelihoods. They’re really on the frontline of climate change. Now what’s going to happen if they don’t have enough water or if temperatures increase so that the seeds they’ve got just don’t work in that temperature, or if the river flow decreases?”

He said warmer temperatures would also affect rich nations through higher food prices, more intense storms and rising sea levels pressuring coastal cities.

“They might not mean their homes get flooded all the time, but to avoid that they’re going to have to spend some serious money in investing in infrastructure that protects them from it. So one way or another, this is going to have a transformative impact on the lives of pretty much everyone on the planet if we get to those kinds of numbers. And I think we need to avoid any kind of delusion that, hey, we’ll have nicer winters.” He said.

Grainger-Jones said most climate models project incremental increases in temperature, but a few forecast a more abrupt change. He says there’s already been about a one degree Celsius increase since pre-industrial times, which some say is affecting today’s climate.

“We’re seeing sea level rise affect many of the communities we work with, for example, in Senegal or in the Mekong Delta, because many poor people live on very flat lands right next to the sea,” he said.

While most scientists say humans are contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, a smaller group holds to the position that climate change is part of the Earth’s natural cycles.

“There is always a natural cycle in weather patterns. But the speed and intensity of the way this particular issue of climate change is being felt and is projected to be felt is well beyond the adaptive capacity right now of many communities in the world,” he said.

IFAD’s Environment and Climate Division director said humans cannot control nature through technology, but they can learn to live in harmony with it.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development is helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change with environmentally friendly techniques. However, he says it will take global agreement on climate change – something that’s been elusive – to fully address the issue. Grainger-Jones added that climate change affects more than the environment, saying it cuts across political agendas and strikes at the economy and health.
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