Prominent climate scientists were unwilling Wednesday to do what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did: blame climate change for the devastating storm known as Sandy that wreaked havoc along the Eastern Seaboard.
They said, nevertheless, that the gargantuan storm might very well have been made worse by the increased rainfall and sea level rise that global warming has caused.
“We don’t have a fingerprint showing that this storm would not have occurred if there wasn’t climate change, but we know that hurricanes are moving farther north and sea level is rising," said Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University and co-chair of a working group for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “What we know indicates that climate change played a role in the damages."
Cuomo was the first politician to publicly link the superstorm to climate change, urging governments and the public to take note of the consequences likely to occur if the world continues to ignore the phenomenon.
The Democratic governor said the storm should be a wake-up call for those who see global warming as a political issue. “The frequency (of extreme weather situations) is way up," he said. “It is not prudent to sit here ... and say it’s not going to happen again. ... It’s a conversation I think is overdue."
Cuomo’s stance was especially bold for an officeholder, given a well-funded nationwide campaign, led in large part by the Heartland Institute of Chicago, to discredit climate scientists and the politicians who tout their research.
Republicans, many of whom once accepted the notion of human-caused climate change, have backed away en masse in the face of those who say scientists are in the pockets of liberals. Democrats, faced with accusations that they are wasting taxpayer dollars pushing green regulations, have all but abandoned the issue.
Storm tracks of hurricanes have been shifting north over time, meaning essentially that more of them turn toward New York and fewer toward Florida than in the past. Field and others said the level of the sea is also about 6 inches higher than it was a century ago and is going to continue to rise as a result of climate change.
Increased flooding is something that is already happening more frequently on low-lying islands and in tropical areas like Bangladesh. The entire West Coast is also in danger, particularly the Bay Area, which is already prone to flooding during winter storms, according to scientists, environmental groups and government research.
In addition, recent studies have attributed an increase in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. As a result, instances of intense rainfall are likely to be more frequent, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist and assistant professor of earth sciences at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Diffenbaugh said the sudden westward movement of a tropical cyclone — which is what happened with Sandy — is highly unusual on its own. Combine that with an early-winter storm moving in from the north, and you have a truly rare event, he said.
It was enough for Michael Bloomberg. In a surprise announcement, the New York mayor said Thursday that Hurricane Sandy had reshaped his thinking about the presidential campaign, and he announced that he was endorsing President Barack Obama. Bloomberg, a political independent in his third term leading New York City, has been critical of both Obama and Mitt Romney, saying that both men have failed to candidly confront the problems afflicting the nation. But he said he had decided over the past several days that Obama was the best candidate to tackle climate change that the mayor believes contributed to the violent storm.
(Both the Obama and Romney campaigns had aggressively sought the mayor’s endorsement, in large part because they believed he could influence independent voters around the country. But the impact of the mayor’s endorsement is unclear; his city and his state are overwhelmingly Democratic, and although he is a well-known and long-serving public official who frequently appears in the national media, his influence is difficult to measure.)