A Rising Tide of Natural Disasters as Climate Changes
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The Fiscal Times
November 5, 2012

If there was a ray of sunshine in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy’s devastating sweep across the northeastern seaboard last week, it was the sight of American politicians finally beginning to talk about climate change.

“Our climate is changing,” New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed endorsing President Obama for reelection because of his willingness to tackle the issue. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

That came just 24 hours after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted “there have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

As Bloomberg noted, there is no need to immediately engage the issue of man’s responsibility or whether burning fossil fuels is to blame. The incontrovertible fact is that the polar ice cap and mountaintop glaciers are melting, filling the rising oceans with warmer waters. The result is that major storms – both inland and those that batter seaside cities and towns – are growing more intense. Political leaders of all stripes are going to have to come to grips with that reality, and quickly.

Over the past year, warnings about the growing intensity of storms have piled up faster than the yachts and fishing vessels behind President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who linked arms while vowing to rebuild the more than 100 miles of heavily populated coastline that had just absorbed the most devastating storm damage in recorded history.  Less than a fortnight before the storm, Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurance firm, declared that “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.”

Its latest study showed that weather-related “loss events” had quintupled over the past three decades – costing over 30,000 lives and causing in aggregate over $1 trillion in damages in inflation-adjusted dollars.  While it will be years before the final bill for Sandy comes due, it took only 48 hours for forecasters like Eqecat and Moody’s Analytics to raise their damage estimates from $10 to $20 billion to $30 to $50 billion. If those early projections follow the same upward path as Hurricane Katrina, Sandy’s damage will soon rival the Gulf Coast storm’s eventual $125 billion cost.

It wasn’t just insurers sounding the alarm bells. A U.S. Geological Survey report issued in June warned that “rates of sea level rise are increasing three-to-four times faster along portions of the U.S. Atlantic Coast than globally.” Since 1990, the 600 miles from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to north of Boston – which the report called “the hotspot” – rose 3/4 to 1 ½ inches compared to less than a third of an inch in most other areas of the globe. The study projected that over the rest of the 21st century, the North Atlantic will rise at least another foot with some scientists saying the increase could be more than three feet.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.