What's the silver lining to the destruction wrought by Sandy?

As I write this on Tuesday, October 30, the Sandy super-storm has cut a wide and disastrous swath through the northeastern United States and the Appalachians, and is headed into the Ohio Valley and the Midwest. As of midafternoon, some 8 million are without power, widespread mass transit disruptions have taken place, and entire towns and neighborhoods have been devastated by floods, fire and storm erosion . While coastal areas were pummeled by wind and rain, West Virginia suffered blizzard conditions.

With all this, Sandy may be fairly termed a harbinger of the probable results of unchecked global warming.   While complete analyses of the storm’s origins will likely take months or years to evaluate fully, some scientists believe that above-normal ocean temperatures and atmospheric changes fueled by melting sea ice contributed to Sandy’s severity.  (Admittedly, so did the merging of diverse weather systems, an event some scientists ascribe to chance.)  An emerging view is that climate change is creating a ‘new normal’ of weather patterns marked by more intense storms that wreak more catastrophic damages.

Therein is Sandy’s silver lining: The storm’s widespread devastation and its $20 billion in estimated economic damage may help us to become more serious about minimizing climate change.  As Meghan McCain, daughter of Arizona Senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, tweeted on October 29: “So are we still going to go with climate change not being real fellow Republicans?”  As the 2012 campaign winds down, McCain’s question can reasonably be directed at Democrats, too.  Global warming has been missing in action in American politics this fall.  Super-storm Sandy reminds us that our complacency could be leading to potentially disastrous consequences down the road.

Next page: How we can heed Sandy's warning

Photo of sandbags in Battery Park in Manhattan via Shutterstock.

What might be the outcomes of heeding Sandy’s warming? 

  • Electrical grid security. The U.S. electrical grid is in urgent need of physical upgrades, regulatory reforms  and enhanced security.  Improvements will be expensive (one estimate  puts the cost at $17 billion to $20 billion per year for 20 years), but blackout costs have been estimated to average $100 billion per year.
  • Building energy efficiency. The aggressive pursuit of building energy efficiency is central to reducing the fossil fuel consumption said to encourage climate change.  The ongoing adoption of more stringent building energy-efficiency codes and voluntary standards (Energy Star, LEED)  is essential in this arena, as is the development of financing and insurance vehicles to encourage the energy-smart upgrade of residential and commercial properties.
  • Greater emphasis on renewable energy technologies. This fall, both political parties have said that they will encourage a range of home-grown energy options, including the development of domestic fossil fuels, nuclear plants and renewables.  Unfortunately, the use of fossil fuels is likely to accelerate global warming and the occurrence of extreme weather events.  Nuclear plants continue to pose safety risks during extreme weather events, as shutdowns during the Sandy superstorm demonstrate.  Against this backdrop, heightened emphasis on the development of renewable energy sources is a smart alternative.

Increased investment in energy-efficient infrastructure, including the electrical grid, efficient buildings, and renewable energy production, would create domestic jobs and contribute to an accelerated economic revival.  The end product would be a more competitive U.S. economy.  And, if the global consensus on climate change is correct, this shift would help to reduce the likelihood of future superstorms.

With any luck, we’ll heed Sandy’s warning.