Hurricane Sandy left a trail of destruction and misery in its wake as it barreled its way onto the Eastern Seaboard and ground through the northeastern part of the United States. Perhaps hardest hit was the coast of New Jersey, where Sandy tore through beaches, demolished boardwalks, swept away houses and deposited oceans of sand in resort towns. Gov. Chris Christie called the damage “incalculable.” The New York City subways were closed for the second time in their 108-year history, as water swamped underground stations. At one point power was lost to upwards of 8.2 million households in 17 states.
Could anything have been done to prevent the damage? In most places, no. There is not much defense possible against such a titanic storm, which caused damage from North Carolina to Vermont. On the other hand, Sandy was the latest in a series of extreme weather events that the overwhelming majority of scientists say is related to global climate change. Warmer temperatures, the result of several human-made causes, lead to increased evaporation of water, which leads to more moisture in the air, and thus to more catastrophic weather. One recent example of accelerated evaporation: Greenland’s surface ice cover experienced a greater thaw during a three-day period last July than in nearly 40 years, according to three independent satellite measurements analyzed by NASA and university scientists.
With at least 179 deaths attributed to the storm in the Caribbean, the United States and Canada, and immeasureable misery visited on millions, it is time to turn our attention to how human actions influence these death-dealing events. The environmental activist Bill McKibben called Sandy a “wake-up call,” noting ruefully that “one wrecked subway system, I fear, equals a thousand academic studies.” That may turn out to be true. In the days after the hurricane, politicians on the East Coast began to call for greater attention to climate change, citing the alarming frequency of “once in a generation storms.”
The decision not to address climate change at all in the presidential campaign now seems foolish. Both Republicans and Democrats deserve blame for this state of events. The former have embraced climate change skeptics while the latter underplayed the urgency of the issue in an election year. The media are at fault too. As the unfairly vilified Al Gore tweeted during the final presidential debate, “Where is global warming in this debate? Climate change is an urgent foreign policy issue.”
The sad irony: Now that a horrific storm has battered the East Coast, home to the business and media establishments (including this magazine), there will be growing pressure upon the U.S. government to turn its attention to the problem of climate change. It seems the suffering of the people of Haiti, devastated by Sandy and so many other storms, was not enough to merit action.
There will be a temptation to politicize the events of October 2012, to blame the opposing party for failing to act or anticipate what was essentially a random and unpredictable event. Yet on that road lies failure. Trying to make political hay out of the destruction caused by Sandy will result only in more of the same: disagreement and stalemate. Until climate change is seen as an issue that affects all Americans, indeed the entire international community, we will fail to make progress in addressing its effects. Climate change is an issue that is vital to the common good and should be treated as such.
Here is where the Catholic community can help. In an address in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that climate change is not a political issue but a human one: “Today the great gift of God’s Creation is exposed to serious dangers and lifestyles which can degrade it. Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world.... We must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity.” That same year, the U.S. bishops helped launch the Catholic Climate Covenant to bring climate change to the attention of all people of faith. The church directs our attention to where it should be focused: on the poor, who suffer the ravages of climate change more than anyone else.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, cities near the coast will discuss how to protect themselves from the next storm. Levees, gates and dikes may need to be built in major metropolitan areas, but they cannot turn the tide of global opinion. Climate change is an issue that transcends borders and demands an international response. The United States can and should play a key leadership role in this effort. Perhaps, moved by the plight of the storm’s victims and prompted by a renewed commitment from people of faith, it will finally assume that responsibility.