Shortly after the disappointment of the Copenhagen Summit, most reporters covering the international climate change negotiations were wondering out aloud if we would see a global climate treaty capping carbon emissions in our lifetime. This was around 2009 and the US had successfully ensured that the world would not get a legally binding treaty at the summit. The last minute ‘Copenhagen Accord’ that was salvaged on their behalf left even more confusion in its wake with many countries refusing to sign on. Most of the developing nations, reeling from the impacts of climate change, ended up feeling excluded and bitter while the Europeans felt no better, although they tried to put on a brave front. Only the Americans, Chinese and Indians seemed pleased with the weak Copenhagen Accord, which set no binding limits on anyone.
Copenhagen was supposed to have been the deadline for the world to sign an agreement limiting carbon emissions (according to the Bali Road Map) that would control rising temperatures. Scientists had long been warning that we are running out of time; that the warmth of the last 140 years is unusual and that current efforts (to curb emissions) are not commensurate with the scale of the problem. The world is currently on track for a four degrees rise in global temperatures by the end of the century, which will be catastrophic for humans on the planet (scientists say the upper limit should be two degrees).
A colleague who had been covering the climate negotiations for several years said something prophetic as the Copenhagen Summit began packing up. “It will take a couple of hurricanes to hit New York before the Americans wake up and realise the reality of climate change and decide to do something about it”. Well, last week Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, and finally the American media was full of talk about climate change.
Experts say that super storm Sandy had an extra twist implicating climate change — the Atlantic hurricane moving up the East Coast crashed into cold air dipping south from Canada and the collision supercharged the storm’s energy level and extended its geographical reach. Pushing that cold air south was an atmospheric pattern, known as a blocking high, above the Arctic Ocean, which is linked to the ice melt due to global warming that is occurring in the Arctic. “Its global warming, stupid” screamed one news headline and even popular American TV shows began interviewing climate experts who warned of more hurricanes and intense storms in the near future, urging New Yorkers to prepare for such disasters.
The message that climate change played a role in Hurricane Sandy finally started getting attention, although it was not up for discussion in the presidential election. Many have noted the near-absence of a climate discussion in the 2012 US presidential race. Apparently, President Obama is already seen as having the support of most voters who are concerned about climate change, and the matter doesn't seem to be a major concern for Mitt Romney’s supporters. Unfortunately, many Americans still think that climate change is a hoax. Only time will tell if Sandy spurs a long-term discussion about climate change and extreme weather events in the US after the election.
For now, New York's governor, Andrew Cumo, is already talking about a fundamental rethinking of the city’s built environment. He stated last week: “long-term modifications that might be needed to protect New York City from coastal flooding is a massive, massive undertaking… But it is a conversation I think is overdue, and a conversation I think we should begin”.
This July was the hottest month recorded in the US since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There’s always been freak weather, but climatologists increasingly think these events are becoming less unusual. Instead of taking place every 10 or 20 years, they are happening every two or three. This is now becoming the new normal, a taste of the future as the planet warms.
The patterns of global warming that scientists have warned about — such as more droughts, sudden downpours, more wildfires, more frequent heat waves and violent storms — are all here now. Unfortunately, the reality is that even as the world experiences increasing numbers of weather-related disasters, climate change has dropped off the global political agenda since the disappointment of the Copenhagen Summit — to the cheers of the fossil fuel industry who are eyeing profits from the trillions of dollars of oil that are still to be pumped to the surface.
Will Hurricane Sandy prove to be a wake up call in a country that has consistently sabotaged international climate legislation? We still have a very good chance of avoiding the worst of climate change if there is a collective global will to do something about the problem before it is too late.