Sandy's Warning

  • By Sam Eaton
  • Posted 11.21.12
  • NOVA

Hurricane Sandy has renewed the debate over climate change in the United States, and two high-profile reports released since the storm have made it clear that without big changes we're headed for an extremely serious climate disruption. Reporter Sam Eaton takes a look at what would have to happen to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

Listen to the story.

Do we have what it takes to stop catastrophic warming?

Stephen Wagner knows hurricane damage. He runs a flood restoration company out of Rochester, New York, but has been working in Louisiana since Hurricane Isaac slammed into the gulf coast last summer. When Sandy hit New York, he came straight back to Breezy Point, a part of the city hardest hit by this fall's storm. Wagner says in terms of sheer size, Sandy "blew Katrina away."

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Stephen Wagner Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Scientists are debating just how much of a role climate change may have played in Hurricane Sandy's devastation. But they generally agree that it did play a role, and that that the storm was a glimpse of the future in a rapidly warming world. Wagner says he's no scientist, but he's worked long enough cleaning up after storms to be convinced that that future is already here.

"Everything is getting bigger, coming, later and moving slower. that's the menace," he says. "The slower they go, the more destruction there is."

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Sandy's destruction in Breezy Point, Queens Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Sandy drew global attention to the growing threats from climate change and renewed the political debate over climate in the United States. But two new reports just out highlight the risk of those impacts becoming much, much worse in the coming decades.

The first came last week from the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based organization that advises industrialized nations on global energy policy and trends. The group issued a stark warning in its annual report: based on current energy trends, global CO2 emissions will push average temperatures up far beyond the two degrees Celsius limit that countries set to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

However you describe the challenge, it would mean a radical shift in our energy use.

Then this week, the World Bank issued essentially the same warning—that we're headed for a world with average temperatures nearly four degrees Celsius hotter than today. In degrees Fahrenheit, that's a seven degree jump. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim painted a stark picture of such a future.

"There would be massive disruption in some of our most basic systems," Kim said at a press conference. "Water supply, the viability of coastal cities, entire populations that live in low-lying areas. And the window is narrow. We've got to take action now."

The question, of course, is how. The International Energy Agency report says that in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming the world will have to leave some two thirds of its remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground between now and 2050. Others take it a step further, arguing that carbon emissions will have to drop by eighty percent.

However you describe the challenge, it would mean a radical shift in our energy use. But the problem, according to Klaus Lackner of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, is that there are a billion people at the top in the world economy and "nine billion people in the future who want to be in that same club. So that essentially makes energy consumption potentially ten times larger than it is today."

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Klaus Lackner Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Lackner says that the conventional view that economic growth is driven by the availability of cheap energy, mostly from fossil fuels, is still alive and well—a reality driven home by President Obama's comments last week that while dealing with climate change is a priority, he won't take any action that would harm economic growth or job creation. Significantly changing the energy status quo, Lackner says, is a very tough sell.

"You have to convince people that a solution exists, which I don't think has happened yet. And that the solution is affordable. And that it's worth spending that amount of money."

Lackner is pessimistic about our ability to meet that challenge. But others say there are historic precedents.

"What's still lacking is the political will to solve the problem."

Ben Orlove of Columbia University's Climate and Society program points out that in the 19th century, many countries finally refused to accept goods made with slave labor, even though they were cheaper. "They just decided it was inhuman," Orlove says.

He says countries have often drawn stark moral lines on economic issues. "People would not accept products that were produced by child labor," Orlove says. "And we also respect the products produced with certain environmental standards. So I think there's the hope that we could extend these agreements into the energy field."

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Ben Orlove says there is an historical precedent for shifting consumption patterns in positive directions. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Proponents argue that solutions do exist. Renewable energy is surging around the world, while costs are plunging.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency report says there are huge opportunities to cut energy use. Fatih Birol, the agency's chief economist, says the growth of the global energy demand could be cut in half through greater efficiency, using only existing technologies, "and pushing the button of the measures which make complete economic sense." Birol's agency estimates that two thirds of the world's potential for energy efficiency remains untapped.

Progress is even slower for a third approach to reining in greenhouse gases—technologies to capture and store carbon. That's something Columbia University's Lackner hopes to change. Lackner has a whole lab filled with machines that he hopes could someday cheaply suck carbon dioxide straight out of the air and store it underground. There are prototypes for fake trees and huge sails made of material that would soak up CO2.

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Klaus Lackner has designed a passive, tree-like device that can extract CO2 from the atmosphere so that it can be stored underground. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Researchers around the world are working on similar technology. But many say so long as there's no broad economic penalty for carbon pollution, there will be little incentive to adopt technologies like this.

"What's still lacking is the political will to solve the problem," Lackner says. "And I think that will require a change in attitude, that people actually see that the risks of not doing anything are starting to get big. The question is, when do we believe that it hurts enough that we will do something about it?"

With Sandy's wreckage still piled across the coasts of New York and New Jersey, many people are saying that moment may finally have come, at least in the U.S. But it remains to be seen whether Sandy will be a watershed moment for climate policy. Memories fade fast, and long-established ways of life can be extremely resistant to change.

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Long time Breezy Point residents, Maureen Logar and her mother Mary McQuillan tour the devastation. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Sam Eaton

Back in Breezy Point, Maureen Logar and her elderly mother, Mary McQuillan, say even after Sandy badly damaged their homes, climate change isn't something they worry about.

"We've had other storms too," Maureen says. "We don't really think about it. We've gotten water. Not ever as bad as this, and hopefully we won't have for another 70, 80 years. And not at least in my time, my kids time. But it's not going to change the way we're living now. It can't. You know you live for today."

For more global environmental news, visit PRI's "The World."

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