Tough Choices in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

November 2nd, 2012

by and


Everyone from Mayor Bloomberg and Businessweek to Bill Clinton and LA Times are linking Hurricane Sandy to climate change. Do we know for certain that this highly destructive hurricane is the result of climate change?

The short answer is: we don’t. There will always be contrary opinions, but when we look across all the weather events of the past 10, 20, or 50 years, the trend is clear. Climate is the average of weather over a period of time, and we’re seeing 100-year floods occurring every 3-20 years. We’re seeing each year become one of the hottest years on record. And we’re seeing more severe droughts more frequently. This has contributed to a rise in sea level across the East Coast, which makes cities like New York and destinations like the Jersey Shore more prone to flooding when storms do hit.

Why should you care?

The economic impacts of climate change are huge. If we stay the current course, the U.S. will be spending an additional $271 billion on adaptation and recovery annually by 2025 due to climate change. This will include spending $44 billion on coastal areas impacted by sea level increases, $200 billion on water to drought stricken areas, and $28 billion on ever increasing energy needs. This doesn’t even take into account the cost of fighting increasingly larger forest fires or the spread of invasive species. Every year we continue to ignore it, the worldwide bill for climate change increases by $500 billion.

The alternative is investing in clean energy and efficiency to slow climate change, and building much more resilient infrastructure to withstand the higher tides and stronger, more regular storms. Every $1 spent on preparing for disaster avoids $15 spent on relief. Climate change mitigation is expensive, with estimates measured in percentage of GDP, and it won’t be easy, but like the interstate highway system, the benefits are substantial and wide-reaching.

Many in Washington believe that there’s a silver bullet coming, an easy solution to curbing climate change, such as a carbon tax, but that’s highly unlikely in our tax-averse political environment. Instead we need to focus on a suite of policies, from clean energy deployment to innovation to efficiency to industrial policy. Even with these steps, it will take years before we see the benefits and challenges like rising sea levels will still confront us. But the combination of slowing the damage now and becoming more resilient in the face of mounting threats is far more wise than our current trajectory of ignoring the problem altogether.