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Sandy and Climate Change

Hurricane Sandy arrives in Atlantic City.

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The case for climate change, formerly the case for global warming, entails a series of propositions that begin with the unobjectionable and escalate to the absurd: that the climate is changing, that these changes are likely to be dangerous and destructive, that these changes are in the main the result of human action, that carbon-dioxide emissions are the major factor, that these changes can be forestalled or reversed by political means, that such political actions are likely to be on the right side of the cost-benefit analysis, etc. The least plausible claims are those holding that specific events, such as the horrific damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, are attributable to specific U.S. public-policy decisions. That this lattermost claim is absurd and stands in contravention of the best scientific analysis has not stopped the most hysterical climate alarmists from making it, but then it is the nature of hysterical alarmists to exceed the bounds of reason.

Among others, Chris Mooney of Mother Jones was sure enough of himself to declare categorically of Sandy: “Climate change, a topic embarrassingly ignored in the three recent presidential debates, made it worse.” Bill McKibben of Democracy Now and others on the left made similar statements, while Businessweek practically wet itself. There is little or no evidence that this claim is true in any meaningful sense, and many climate scientists believe that warming has resulted in fewer powerful hurricanes striking the United States. As usual, the science is complex while the politics are unfortunately simpleminded.

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The conventional climate-change argument holds that warmer oceans will lead to more intense hurricanes and other extreme weather events. But Sandy was not an unprecedentedly powerful hurricane — it inflicted such remarkable damage because it arrived at the confluence of a nor’easter and a high-pressure system, and plowed into densely populated urban areas at high tide. In fact, the arrival of powerful hurricanes on our shores is somewhat diminished of late: The last Category 3 hurricane to make landfall was seven years ago, the longest such interval in a century. As Professor Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado points out, 1954–55 saw three back-to-back hurricanes — two in the same month — more destructive than Sandy crashing onto our shores.

It is true that the New York harbor is about a foot higher than it was a century ago, though how much of that is the result of anthropogenic global warming is uncertain. But that additional foot, even if it were entirely the result of a failure to control carbon-dioxide emissions, was a relatively small component in the monstrous storm tide that inundated New York, New Jersey, and other coastal areas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections, contrary to the alarmists, do not suggest that future storm surges would be much worse as a result of global warming. (See here, for example.)

There were a great many institutional failures that made Sandy worse than it had to be. In retrospect, Mayor Bloomberg should perhaps have been worried more about the readiness of the city’s hospitals than the salt content of its snack foods. His obsession with Big Gulps, in the context of this destruction, is both hilarious and horrifying. Perhaps there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the flooding of the tunnels and the collapse of the electrical supply, but surely a great deal of capital and energy that were directed toward trivial pursuits good for very little other than generating headlines would have been better deployed toward the unglamorous but necessary work of ensuring that low-lying coastal cities are sufficiently inured to the threats posed by hurricanes and other common, inevitable events. New York City is many things: over-engineered against hurricanes is not one of them.

Resources are scarce. Even if we take at face value the entirety of the anthropogenic-global-warming hypothesis, it is extraordinarily unlikely that U.S. policies would succeed in halting or reversing that trend in a world in which China, India, and the rest of the developing world have made it plain that they will not reduce emissions under any foreseeable circumstances. Global-warming hysteria is a fashion, and it is exciting to a certain sort of person. Tunnel-improvement projects do not have the sex appeal of a global climate crusade, but they represent a more prudent use of our capital, both political and real. It would not be accurate to say that this hysteria serves no one, but Al Gore’s fortune is not in obvious need of further supplementation, and we did not believe Barack Obama’s promise of halting the oceans’ rise the first time around.



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