Hurricane Resurfaces Forgotten Election Issue: Climate Change

November 1, 2012

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, bringing blizzards to West Virginia and flooding to the northeast, some debated the storm’s connection to climate change. Scientists took to Twitter to share their opinions on how warming has made Sandy worse with Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe tweeting that sea level is 7 inches higher now compared to 100 years ago and about 15 percent of the unusually warm sea surface temperatures fueling Sandy are a result of climate change. Bloomberg Businessweek left no one guessing on the focus of their Sandy coverage with a cover reading: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

The storm, Slate claimed, is a hybrid many scientists just don’t really understand well. Actually connecting the storm to man-made climate change is much more challenging. The Houston Chronicle reported: “The bottom line is that climate change is unquestionably having an effect on the weather around us by raising the average temperature of the planet. This is producing warmer temperatures and very likely increasing the magnitude of droughts. However, it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time.” David Roberts of Grist disagrees with this kind of hedging. He says, “When the public asks, ‘Did climate change cause this?’ they are asking a confused question”—one akin to asking if steroids caused a specific home run by Barry Bonds. Others avoid the causation question altogether, and wonder whether Sandy will be a wake-up call for climate resilience.

While Sandy smashed records—for economic loss, closure of the New York Stock Exchange and mass transit—its effect on the impending election remain uncertain. The Los Angeles Times suggests that Sandy’s arrival may actually get presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to address climate change—a long-ignored issue of the campaign thus far. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are among those calling for the candidates to circle back to the issue.

Energy Impacts in Wake of Sandy

In the wake of Sandy, nuclear power outages were the second highest in a decade. More than 6.1 million customers in the northeastern U.S. have been left without power, and utility companies have warned that blackouts may persist until after the election. Many of these power companies had come under fire for their slow response to recent storm-related power outages, and their response to Sandy could put them to the test.

To help deal with energy needs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waived clean gasoline rules—required under the Clean Air Act—for more than a dozen states. The waiver lets conventional gasoline be sold instead of cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia through Nov. 20.

Alternative Sources Rising

The International Energy Agency released a report challenging the notion hydropower has peaked. It shares the steps necessary to double hydroelectricity power by 2050—preventing roughly 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel plants annually.

Across the globe in Germany, renewable energy production is projected to grow far faster than original forecasts. “The current boom in new installations of wind, solar and other renewable power sources will easily top the official target of 35 percent by 2022, reaching about 48 percent by then,” said Stephan Kohler, head of the government-affiliated agency overseeing Germany’s electricity grid. Scotland is also looking to ambitious renewable energy goals—setting a 50 percent renewables target by 2015.

Sweden is looking to other ways to cut carbon dioxide: garbage. In fact, only 4 percent of the country’s waste ends up in the landfill due to their efficiency to convert waste into renewable energy. They generate enough electricity to power roughly 250,000 homes annually—even importing near 800,000 tons of trash to fuel their habit.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.