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Tom Mitchell
Tom Mitchell
Dr Tom Mitchell is Head of Climate Change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). He is also a Senior Adviser in the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, in which he oversees the research and knowledge management components.

Hurricane Sandy brings climate change crashing onto the White House lawn

Hurricane Sandy has put climate change on the election agenda even if the candidates didn't want it, writes Mitchell.
Last Modified: 03 Nov 2012 14:07
Reports suggest that Sandy-like hurricanes and related extreme storm surges will become more common [AFP]

Hurricane Sandy has parked the issue of climate change on the lawn of the White House whether the candidates competing for the keys like it or not. 

Last week, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stressed their commitment to developing oil and gas to improve energy security. Climate change was not mentioned. This position is senseless. The US Midwest has just experienced the worst drought in 60 years, one which has seen economic growth depressed by 0.4 per cent GDP as a result and higher food prices resulting from a 13 per cent drop in corn production. As the East Coast slowly emerges from the deluge and debris of the past 24 hours, the job of counting the cost has only just begun. 

The evidence suggests the US public has already woken up to the need for a change - 70 per cent now believe the climate is changing and a greater percentage than before want a switch to clean energy. Ignoring numbers like that may rather more difficult now for both campaigns.  

Scientists recently concluded that the drought was made 20 times more likely by climate change and it seems the US public agree. So the message for the politicians is as clear as it can be - more oil and gas equals more extreme weather and other climate change impacts, all of which equal greater economic losses. 

Strong vested interests at play

The US public is concerned about the potential for climate change to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events. Why then is the US so reluctant to take a leading role in the international fight to tackle climate change and why are the Presidential candidates focused on outdoing each other on support for fossil fuels? Clearly, there are some strong vested interests at play and maybe climate change is just seen as too risky as a campaign issue. 

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Despite significant progress to reduce emissions at State and city level, the US has done its best to block progress in international climate negotiations. It has consistently acted alongside Saudi Arabia and other oil states to ensure agreements are not reached, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and delayed climate finance support to developing countries. Now, climate change has served up the October surprise. Hurricane Sandy - dubbed the Frankenstorm and linked widely to climate change in the US media - has brought widespread flooding and sizeable economic losses. Insurers are already talking of more than $16bn, more seriously the human cost is not yet fully known. 

So first, let's be clear on the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report "Managing the risks of climate extremes and disasters for advancing climate change adaptation" (SREX), of which I was an author, said:   

  • It is likely that there has been a poleward shift in the main Northern and Southern hemisphere extra-tropical storm tracks. Hurricane Sandy is an example, as was Hurricane Irene, which hit the same area last August. The IPCC also concluded that there is stronger confidence for a further poleward shift in the future, so the evidence is that Sandy and Irene are just the start. "Studies indicate a northward and eastward shift in the Atlantic cyclone activity during the last 60 years with both more frequent and more intense wintertime cylones in the high-latitude Atlantic." A set of studies attribute this trend to climate change. There is less evidence on the intensity and frequency of such hurricanes.
  • It is likely that there has been an increase in extreme coastal high water related to increases in mean sea level. The record storm surge from Hurricane Sandy is probably the most destructive element, with the surge exceeding warnings in some places. In other words, the potential for coastal flood damage from extreme weather is greater than before. 

Climate change on the election agenda

It will take time for scientists to assess whether Hurricane Sandy was made more likely by climate change. What we do know though is that indications from the IPCC report suggests that Sandy-like hurricanes and related extreme storm surges will become more common. 

"Tackling climate change must become a focus of the next administration, just as healthcare was for Obama's first term."

Hurricane Sandy has put climate change on the election agenda even if the candidates didn't want it. The important thing now is what happens next. Tackling climate change must become a focus of the next administration, just as healthcare was for Obama's first term. Continuing a fossil fuel focus and ducking international leadership on climate change is effectively a slow motion robbery of the future.   

The impacts of climate change have already become so serious in some developing countries that they are fighting for a financial mechanism to pay for climate-related losses and damage in the climate negotiations. They are also petitioning the UN General Assembly to request a hearing by the International Court of Justice on who should be held accountable for the damages caused by climate change. The leaders of this action fully expect the US and other industrialised countries to be the defendants. 

Does the US president really want to be put on trial in this way? Bold action from the US on tackling climate change would help to stop all this. Whether they are in Baltimore or Bangladesh, the future ability of people to batten down the hatches is dependent on a grown-up response from America's top politicians. 

Dr Tom Mitchell is Head of Climate Change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). He has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. He is also a Senior Adviser in the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, in which he oversees the research and knowledge management components. He is a serving IPCC WG2 Co-ordinating Lead Author of the Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters and a Lead Author of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. 

A version of this article first appeared on ODI. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tommitchell_odi

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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