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Lynn Englum Headshot

This Is What Climate Change Looks Like

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Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? That is the question everyone seems to be asking. Scientists are hard at work determining what percent of the storm's strength and breadth came from warming ocean waters caused by human activity. And while it deserves analysis and scientists need to continue studying attribution, it is the same question we asked about this year's drought and record heat along with the massive western wildfires. We asked it again in 2010 when global temperatures were the hottest on record and when Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped New Orleans off the map. Repeatedly focusing on this question every time an unprecedented weather event occurs, particularly when scientists are concluding that all weather events are impacted in a warmer and moister world, no longer makes sense.

The obsession with this question is causing us to ignore a more important discussion. These events are what climate change looks like -- evacuations, transit shutdown, traffic logjams, massive power outages, enormous loss of productivity, crop and livelihood damage with significant resources and money needed to cover the costs. We are already experiencing projected climate change impacts, regardless of attribution.

A 2009 report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S. -- a coordinated effort from all the major federal governmental agencies -- outlined what climate change in the U.S. looks like. It states this about the Northeast region:

• "Rising sea level is projected to increase the frequency and severity of damaging storm surges and flooding."
• "Critical transportation infrastructure located in the Battery area of lower Manhattan could be flooded far more frequently unless protected."
• "Densely populated coasts will "face substantial increases in the extent and frequency of storm surge, coastal flooding, erosion and property damage..."

Any of this sound familiar? We are witnessing the projections. This describes New York City and New Jersey right now.

We're getting first hand experience of the future's new normal. Even more importantly, we are witnessing our inability to handle that future. Hurricane Sandy, like Katrina, Irene and the crippling drought in 2011 and 2012, is another reminder of just how vulnerable our cities, communities and homes are to extreme weather events.

Ironically, critics say we cannot address climate change because it will be too expensive and disruptive to our economy. Tell that to a New Yorker this week or a Hurricane Katrina refugee or farmers that lost their crop this year. Preliminary estimates for Sandy's economic cost are between $30 and $50 billion, potentially even shaving off half a percentage point from this quarter's economic growth. Insured coastal property in New York state alone is worth $2.3 trillion. It's now at risk from a changing climate. Ultimately, the very nature of climate change is disruption coupled with significant costs.

We are currently witnessing impacts scientists and reports described would occur from climate change. Connecting the dots between the aftermath of extreme weather and a more disruptive future is critical for grasping the magnitude of a warmer world and understanding what we are up against. It provides tangible examples of the significant problems associated with ignoring one of the biggest threats to our future. The need to prepare for more extreme weather conditions and to keep global warming to a manageable level is no longer abstract or theoretical considerations. Obsessing over climate attribution distracts from understanding our future reality. A reality that is looking more and more present every year.

If you asked a New Yorker prior to this week what would happen if the entire subway system and commuter rail shut down for an extended period, his or her answer would likely include words such as impossible and chaos. Sandy caused the supposed impossible, shutting down the subway system for over 72 hours. A full functioning subway has yet to return nearly 4 days after the storm.

THIS IS what climate change looks like. We should be asking if this is the future we want? And are we willing to make the choices that will avert a dangerous and expensive warmer world?

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