Climate lessons from Sandy and the political economy of mitigation

There is compelling evidence that certain features of Sandy can be linked to climate change, and it is clear that scientific studies of this linkage will be undertaken over the next few months and years.  That said, as a scientist I am increasingly impressed with the emphasis that many folks place on weather as an indicator of human caused climate disruption.  The willingness to make this association continues despite many attempts by journalists to avoid conflation of climate change and weather.  Sandy has resulted in a media orgy of such conflation.  To be sure, all weather is now occurring in a climate that has been altered by humans.  Thus, as scientists are pointing out, the issue regarding any given weather event is not that it may have been caused by us, but rather, how has its manifestation been change by the climate that we have helped to create.  This is known by climatologists as forensic attribution, and it is a bit like a weather version of CSI.  Scientists ask the question: Which features of a given weather event are attributable to climate change?  Getting the answer to this requires painstaking analysis and modeling of the data.  From the chatter around the Internet and in the mainstream media about Sandy, I am concerned that the distinction between climate and weather is not fully understood by the public at large.

One reason why this distinction is critically important is that storms like Sandy will not respond to a short term reduction in emissions.  Weather happens on a a timescale of no more than a few weeks, while climate change in response to the greenhouse gases generally evolves over decades and, in the case of paleoclimate, possibly centuries.  Indeed, the warming that is in the pipeline from the build up of heat energy in the oceans will take 30 or 40 years to be fully expressed in the temperature of the troposphere, the layer of warm, humid air that we live in.  In March 2007 while I was giving a talk to Charlie Crist (then governor of Florida) and his cabinet, the Attorney General exclaimed, “Professor, are you telling me that no matter what we do to reduce emissions, the impact will not be felt within our lifetime?”  Yep.  Exactly.  You got a problem with that?

There are two hugely important implications of this line of reasoning.  First, we must come to accept that we have an ethical responsibility to future generations, and that this obligation is independent of any benefit to us.  I would not be surprised if there remains some evidence of the climate that we have created for up to several centuries after we cease human generated emissions altogether.  In fact, recent studies by Susan Solomon at NOAA indicate that the emissions during the era of fossil fuels will require a millennium to dissipate.  This is partly because biological sources emit additional greenhouse gases in response to warming, a process known as positive feedback.

While we should find this reality very sobering, I fear that the public wants quick results.  Politicians will desire that any investment in mitigation of emissions be met with a reduction in damaging weather.  Sadly, this will not happen within our lifetimes.  Perhaps the most diffuse concept related to mitigation is that by reducing greenhouse gas emissions we will be avoiding something (climate catastrophe) rather than changing something (reducing extreme weather).  The thing that is avoided is abstract, rather than experienced.   It is not clear to me that our evolutionary wiring will permit widespread acceptance of such an abstract ethical obligation.

Secondly, the false perception that addressing climate change can in the near term reduce the frequency of extreme weather has far reaching implications for our political economy.  Our duly elected leaders must have the courage to invest in mitigation now in order to ensure a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.  Simply put, this investment is mandatory if we are to preserve civilization.  The science is very clear on this, and there is little wiggle room.  One does not negotiate with the laws of physics.   This imperative starkly highlights the single most important weakness of our system of governance, specifically, that our legislators are tied to short term election and budgetary cycles.  Investment for an outcome that may not be realized for decades or centuries is not something that lawmakers can use to win elections.

The political economy of mitigation is daunting in that it will certainly require that we make major investments in renewable energy while at the same time putting a price on carbon.  This will undoubtedly result in higher energy prices, especially if fossil fuels are priced to reflect the damage that they do to the environment.  Presently the cost of this damage is externalized, and you and I pay for it with our taxes and healthcare dollars.  If a general mandate to address climate change is to be successful, the public must understand that this will be expensive, unlikely to produce results in our lifetime, and absolutely necessary to avoid catastrophic warming by the end of this century.  I daresay, even in the wake of Sandy’s massive destruction, this is a tough sell.

The good news is that the costs of mitigation can be absorbed by our economy and at the same time produce jobs and opportunities for economic development.  Thus, there is a short term payoff for efforts at mitigation through the creation of a sustaining economy.   Politicians will need to emphasize this aspect as they meet their ethical obligation to reduce emission.  If you want to get a taste of how this works, I encourage you to read Gus Speth’s new book, America The Possible.  Speth is the commencement speaker for spring graduation at Unity College.