Will Sandy blow away climate scepticism? Opinion Article

Oct 30, 2012 - 3:45pm

This article first appeared in The Drum on 30 October 2012.

By John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute 

As ‘Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy lurches destructively across the eastern seaboard of North America, there are sure signs that wilder weather is also impacting the American mind. At least for now. 

While not a capricious monster in the class of Hurricane Katrina or our own Cyclone Yasi in terms of wind speed, Sandy is a reminder that we are likely to see more intense and/or frequent storms as global temperatures rise.

The oceans are warming, energising storms and sending more water vapour aloft; raising the risk of heavy downpours and flooding.

A paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the history of Atlantic hurricanes making landfall. Storm activity was shown to be highest in warm years with the largest storms most affected by the warmer conditions. The frequency of large surge events has risen since 1923 and Katrina-like storms have occurred twice as often in warm years as with cold years.

Despite a planet-sized body of evidence for man-made climate change, scientists have found it tough-going against the cadre of vested interests. It's also tough going with people who, for other often understandable reasons, don't want to engage with the science and its implications.

But while Americans' views on global warming still rank as the world's most sceptical, scepticism is on the wane. This is backed by a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press showing that nearly half of Republicans - even conservative Republicans - now accept that the world is warming.

With one in five now saying they are personally affected by extreme weather, surveys conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication show how the tide of opinion has turned. More importantly, the number of people who outright reject the science has declined to less than a third. Only 12 per cent of Americans now do not accept that global warming is happening at all.

More and more people are worried about impacts and a growing number feel threatened by weather-related disasters. And with the kind of weather that they have recently had, it makes sense.

The question is whether this pattern stays in place or reverses, as the weather will.

In Australia, we were much more concerned about climate change while we were in drought conditions. With the drought gone – and the ushering of a very wet, equally untypical weather – minds changed again.

The brutal and politicised debate around the carbon tax, devoid of any conversation about impacts, is mostly to blame. But it is a cautionary tale for how public opinion swings. Let's remember that our surge in concern preceded the massive mobilisation in public denial and delay, as opposed to private lobbying on political forces that we suffered during the 1990s.

And in the United States we see that rising emissions are well and truly loading up the dice in favour of more hostile weather, and more Americans reckon they can see that. And feel it.

This shift in public opinion is taking place even as other issues - like jobs, immigration, foreign policy, and health - dominate media reports and election campaigns.

Barely a peep on climate change has been heard from either presidential candidate; little more than a smattering has been uttered on clean energy.

Yet, the Yale project says that three-quarters of Americans now believe that man-made global warming has helped to desiccate crops in the Midwest, fuel record heatwaves, and make for an unnervingly warm winter.

So, how will Sandy affect the US elections?

Well, it's still anyone's game. One thing is certain: there is only so long that even the most entrenched denier can hold out against the laws of physics. Americans are waking up to what the experts have been saying, what the instruments are showing, and what the basic science tells us.

Of course, there will be the cool, calm years that lead to complacency, but global warming is not going away. If the change in the American mind continues, the next man in the Oval Office - Democrat or Republican - will have to take climate change a lot more seriously, well after Sandy's fury has petered out, the power is back on, and the New York City subway is open again.

And that, in turn, means the resident of the Lodge will feel less inclined or able to do nothing.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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