10/31/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Sandy and What's Missing From Public Discourse

Upon returning to the South Bronx after a summer working in the townships of South Africa with communities affected by HIV/AIDS, I had an epiphany: the 'third world' problems are actually in the backyard of the so-called developed world -- the backyard of American cities and towns. As an American I had tricked myself into a convenient ignorance of the fact that what happens somewhere has little bearing on the direction of what happens in my country, America. As I look out my window after Hurricane Sandy today and see flooded NY streets, closures to Wall Street, flooded train tunnels, empty grocery stores, evacuated hospitals, and half of Manhattan in a blackout, I am reminded of my post-Africa/Bronx epiphany.

The aerial image of a blacked-out North Korea and an electrified South Korea comes to mind when I see the darkness below 39th street in Manhattan or between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Images of flooded villages in India or Thailand come to mind when seeing the flooded subway system and neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey. What we as Americans are so used to seeing on TV in some of the developing world is now blurred with our streets in America, increasingly so as we face the new normal of weather systems and climate change.

Hurricane Sandy has claimed nearly 80 lives from the Caribbean through NY and NJ and will cost billions of dollars in infrastructure damages. While it is not possible to blame a phenomena such as Sandy on a single issue like climate change, it is plausible to reassess the pulse of our planet and the subsequent volatile weather systems that follow deteriorating planetary health. Climate change is a part of the puzzle. Even with an unprecedented storm such as Sandy, it is worrisome that climate change in this country has become a taboo term politically and a dismissed term socially. This continued fear of 'the C words' from public discourse is a problematic barrier to achieving important gains in adjusting to the changing health of our planet. Before we can de-carbonize our energy grids, we must first de-politicise and demystify our changing planet and how we as global citizens are directly affected by and responsible for its health.

Let's work around the term climate change and call it like it is: Our planet is changing. Weather patterns are growing more extreme and unpredictable, more frequently than ever before in modern history. While we are now used to seeing political turmoil gripping the Middle East and extreme poverty hitting India and Sub Saharan Africa, we fail to mentally accommodate for the incremental shifts taking place in our planet's health. In actuality, human rights, political stability, human development are 100 percent reliant upon our earth's energy sources, food sources, and biodiversity.

"Humanity dominates changes in the earth's environment... we've already changed the planet," said Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and head of the UN Secretary-General's Sustainable Development Solutions Network. According to scientists, PH levels of our world's oceans have already decreased by 0.1 units, resulting in the acidification of our oceans. We have surpassed the limits of CO2 concentration that our atmosphere can handle, resulting in an increase of the earth's temperature by 1.6 degrees Celsius. Such changes are enough to induce massive alterations in the planet's climate and sea levels and destroy biodiversity. Those are the facts which are drowned out in current political discourse.

But what about socially? Numbers alone do not make the realities of climate change tangible. The last 12 months, from July 2011 to July 2012, have been the warmest on record. Ask farmers in the U.S. Midwest. The U.S. is in its worst drought in modern history. Food prices continue to increase as a result of such phenomena. 870 million people worldwide are currently affected by hunger, according to the World Food Programme. The trajectory of this number is largely determined by issues related to the planet's health and consequently its ability to generate food.

According to Professor Sachs' estimations, what makes climate change more elusive is that our world has not seen the full feed-back effects of climate change given that oceans have a slower process of absorbing warmth.

Take for example the health of our oceans and those of us who directly, or, indirectly rely on the ocean for our food, jobs, or businesses. 70 percent of the world is covered by oceans. Some 12 percent of the world's population depends on fisheries and aquaculture, reports the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in its State of World's Fisheries and Aquaculture report. As the world population grows to 9 billion by 2040, and increased demands for a growing global middle class, the UN estimates that the world will need at least 50 percent more food and 45 percent more energy to be able to sustain itself and prevent an increase of people living in extreme poverty.

The issue of climate change remains complicated because it requires decisions and collective action. It is not complicated because of lack of technological capabilities. Only after public discourse takes place will politicians be forced to construct the necessary polices and investments for a healthier planet.

To preserve our planet, we, as communities and civil society, have some decisions to make. First place to start would be to collectively agree, city by city, that we cannot survive without a healthy planet, and at least in some part, our planet is not healthy because of us. At the same time, our planet has also been witness to great innovation because of human activity and public-private partnerships. With aggressive public discourse and effective partnerships between public and private sectors, pathways exist to sustainability, especially with technologies for greener buildings and electric vehicles. Solutions should aim to de-carbonize our global energy system, says Professor Sachs. Key technologies will be renewable energy, such as solar and wind and nuclear energy, which can clean our energy grids.

There will undoubtedly be more Sandies and Irenes. More will be displaced and hurt, and more of our country's budget will be spent on reconstruction after volatile weather systems. That is our new normal. That is not the tragedy, however, because humans can endure. The tragedy would manifest itself if our communities and political leadership continue to meet the new normal with the inflexible, status quo responses, or no response at all.