The presidential candidates mostly ignored the topic of climate change in the recently concluded campaign, but elected officials in jurisdictions directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy spoke more freely in the storm’s wake.
In his endorsement of President Obama, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was more direct. The hurricane, he said, should herald “the recognition that climate change is a reality.”
The statements marked a turning point of sorts: Until very recently, even the scientific community that has issued ever-more dire warnings about the perils of inaction was reluctant to tie a singular weather event to climate change. After Hurricane Sandy, that reluctance is fading.
A causal connection between a specific event and climate change still cannot be conclusively demonstrated, said Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, a not-for-profit organization based in East Hampton that promotes sustainable energy use and generation for the Island. But that is the wrong question, he said. “The right question is whether such types of extreme weather events are caused in part by climate change. The answer is yes, we can point to a direct link. The scientific body of evidence has been building over time.”
Mr. Raacke mentioned “Perception of Climate Change,” a peer-reviewed paper by James Hansen, a NASA physicist and climatologist, that was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, Mr. Raacke said, “he makes a very ironclad case that extreme weather events are caused in large part by climate change.”
If a willingness to acknowledge causality between extreme weather and climate change is emerging, actions Mr. Raacke’s organization advocates — a drawdown of fossil-fuel consumption and the resulting CO2 emissions blamed for climate change in favor of widespread adoption of “green” energy generation — may also gain traction. He referred to the study “A Long Island Clean Electricity Vision,” produced for Renewable Energy Long Island by Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. It concluded that 100 percent of Long Island’s residential electrical needs could be met with clean, renewable power sources by the end of this decade.
To achieve this, a significant amount of infrastructure to capture wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources would be required. Under such a plan, utility rates would necessarily rise, Mr. Raacke acknowledged, but gradually fall, and would include the purchase of credits to offset some continued use of conventional energy sources.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Renewable Energy Long Island has seen a sizable uptick in inquiries about residential solar-panel installation, Mr. Raacke said. But the persistent downplaying or dismissal of climate change at the national level, he added, is worrisome. “When I listened to the second debate, when they talked about energy, it seemed like they’re both living on another planet,” he said. “It seemed ironic that given all the messages that Mother Nature is sending, they’re still not willing to address this. That was very disappointing, and that the moderator didn’t ask was very disappointing. I hope it’s not going to take a major disaster to wake us up.”
Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author, is the founder of 350.org, a group that advocates a reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. That, according to climate scientists, is a safe level; the present level is 392 parts per million.
On Nov. 7, Mr. McKibben embarked on his “Do the Math” tour, on which he seeks to build a movement able to “stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”
Daniel Kessler, a media campaigner for 350.org, said on Tuesday that citizens, if not government, have connected the dots. “We know that climate change is causing more extreme weather and Sandy is an example of this,” he told The Star. “The Atlantic is 5 degrees warmer than average, and there’s sea level rise. When you put those together it makes what would be a horrible storm worse. And it fits what scientists have been saying for decades. This is no longer something abstract.”