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Energy and Truth in Sandy's Wake

by: Paul Kando

Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, with winds spanning 1,100 miles. If damage estimates are confirmed, it was also the second-costliest in history, behind only Katrina. It killed 110 Americans, affected 24 states, from Florida to Maine and west to Michigan and Wisconsin, with particularly severe damage in New Jersey and New York.

Hurricane Sandy
photo credit: NOAA

Its winds left 70% of Jamaica's residents without electricity, blew roofs off buildings, killed one, and caused about $55 million in damage. In Haiti, Sandy's floods killed at least 52, caused food shortages, and left 200,000 homeless. In the Dominican Republic, two died, in Puerto Rico one. In Cuba, there was extensive coastal flooding and wind damage inland, killing 11, destroying 15,000 homes, and causing $2 billion in damage. The Bahamas sustained $300 million in damage and two fatalities.

But Sandy is only part of a bigger story of devastation brought about by global warming. The coming year may bring dramatic increases in hunger as food prices rise due to crop failures. Last summer a scorching drought nearly caused the mighty Mississippi to run dry as crops withered. According to the Irish Times, across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, hundreds of millions are struggling to adapt to their changing climate. In the last three years, we have seen 10 million people displaced by floods in Pakistan, 13 million face hunger in east Africa, and over 10 million in the Sahel region of Africa face starvation. Even those figures only scrape the surface. According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, climate change affects 300 million people annually and is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year. By 2030, the annual climate change related death toll is expected to rise to 500,000 accompanied by $600 billion in economic damage.

The United States has done almost nothing over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present catastrophe, even though the science has been clear and not hard to understand. It is not possible to prove direct links to specific whether events, but we know that excess energy trapped in the atmosphere due to carbon emissions impacts the planet's hydrology. The more heat, the warmer the air, the more convection and evaporation. The warmer the air, the more moisture it absorbs, along with the energy it took to evaporate that moisture. And when the air finally cools, the moisture is released along with the massive amount of energy it took to evaporate it. We know this from our high school physics, and even from observing our heated house. There is full consensus among serious scientists about these basics. Yet, especially in this country, fossil fuel and related interests have spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change, punishing politicians who brought up the subject. We have even gone through a full presidential election cycle with nary a mention of climate change.

In view of the consequences this is an outrage, never mind the disguises, euphemisms and distractions that protect outrages of this sort. "Torture" becomes "enhanced interrogation", "killing innocent civilians" softens to "collateral damage". The "shell shock" of World War I tames to "battle fatigue" in World War II , "operational exhaustion" in the Korean War, "post-traumatic stress disorder" in Vietnam and the totally anesthetic "PTSD" in current vogue. Softened words make outrages more palatable.

Three decades of refusing to respond to warnings about human-caused global warming were akin to forcing fire fighters to wait for a house fire to grow to full force before allowing them to put it out. Precious time was wasted. Now the Arctic tundra is thawing, the Greenland ice cover and glaciers are melting, oceans acidify. We are facing extreme droughts, floods, heat waves, wildfires, and crop failures. Natural systems are disrupted. Species die out at an accelerated rate. The potential damage we all spoke of a few years ago has arrived. If in doubt, ask a displaced resident of Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, or coastal New Jersey. Ask a farmer in the Mississipi basin.

The climate has already changed. Still we can respond, if we avoid being deceived into continued inaction. If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, justice and art deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything. writes Confucius (Analects, XIII, 3, 4-7). Indeed, imperial China had a custom of "rectifying names", a clean-up of the imperial vocabulary as dynasties changed.

Post-election is a good time for us, as individuals and communities, to demand action on climate change by our government. To call a spade a spade, unvarnished by euphemisms. Refuse to be distracted by political and commercial snake oil peddlers. Our beautiful world as we have known it depends on it.