It was five years ago yesterday that Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey and caused destruction second only to that from Hurricane Katrina just seven years before. Although Sandy was especially damaging in the New York/New Jersey area, the storm affected the entire Eastern Seaboard and 24 states. If Katrina gave the first indication that we’ve begun a new era of powerful, more-destructive superstorms, Sandy proclaimed it in all caps. Then, of course, came Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
None of these storms were caused by climate change, but warmer ocean waters helped them become more powerful while at sea, and rising sea levels made them destructive when they reached land. These are trends that won’t get better anytime soon (i.e., within our lifetimes), but they’re likely to get much worse. Many scientists predict that sea levels could rise as much as six feet or more by the end of this century. Sandy damaged the house I grew up in. Under this latest scenario, though, nearly the entire island I grew up on would be imperiled, along with much of the current low-lying property on the entire Eastern Seaboard.
The good news is that people in this country are beginning to realize what’s happening (the rest of the world has been way ahead of us on this one). After Katrina, 39 percent of Americans said they believed climate change helped to fuel the intensity of hurricanes. When surveyed after Harvey and Irma, 55 percent believed that.
But you know who doesn’t need more convincing that climate change is making hurricanes more intense? Scientists. The data on wind speed and storm surge is irrefutable. Scientists may argue about the exact details of what is happening, but the bigger picture is impossible to ignore.
Unless, of course, you work for Donald Trump, who has packed his administration with a who’s who of climate deniers. First and worst among them is EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who treats the scientists in his own agency more like enemies than employees. Earlier this week, the agency went so far as to tell three of its scientists that they were forbidden to speak about the effects of climate change at a conference in Providence, R.I., on the health of Narragansett Bay. Pruitt had already seen to it that mentions of climate change were scrubbed from the EPA website. The material deleted included examples of plans for states to adapt to extreme weather.
Pruitt’s a zealot, and my heart goes out to the career scientists and other professionals who now find themselves working for him. That can’t be easy when you’ve devoted your life to discovering the truth. Those who manage to stick it out are heroes. If you’re an EPA employee and are reading this, thank you for your service! Although Pruitt can make your jobs difficult or even miserable and encourage you to leave, the one thing he can’t do is make you believe something that isn’t true. “E pur si muove,” Galileo muttered after being forced by the Inquisition to say he was wrong — and that the Earth did not revolve around the sun. “And yet, it moves.”
How much lasting damage Pruitt can do during his reign of denial is an open question. For our part, the Sierra Club is challenging him every step of the way. At the same time, we and our allies in local governments, in business, and in other countries are working harder than ever to advance the clean energy solutions and adaptation strategies that are the only rational response to climate disruption.
Yes, Scott Pruitt can try to gag his scientists. He can “challenge” their data. He can abuse his power and do everything he can to censor, distort, and limit information about climate change.
And yet, it changes.