Do we want to learn from disasters? Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Chris Mooney is one of the better writers about climate change and public perception out there.  His response to Sandy was clear: We’d been warned, we didn’t learn, will Sandy be the start of learning.  To quote from his article:

So, yes, we knew. We knew well ahead of time that this could happen, and we knew global warming was already making it worse. We knew, but we did virtually nothing…We know that if you think this is bad, well, global warming will make it still worse in the future…Thus far in America, we’ve gotten the national conversation that we deserve—and the consequence is that we feel blindsided by disasters that somehow never came up until it was too late. In the wake of Sandy, then, how about a resolution? This time around, let’s all vow to think about the future, and about climate change, before the next tragedy strikes.

Climate scientists seem to be consistent that Sandy was almost certainly not “caused” by climate change, but that to ignore the impact that climate change had on Sandy would be ridiculous.  To say it simply, climate change appears to intensify extreme weather events.  The learning needed would be some significant action on climate change which has been so far lacking.

This argument has been taken farthest in a recent quote from Professor Michael E. Mann.  He told the L.A. Times that

This may be that sort of Cuyahoga River moment for climate change.  It has galvanized attention to this issue and the role that climate change may be playing with regard to the intensification of extreme weather.

The famous 1969 Cuyahoga River fire is often claimed as a catalyst for the environmentalism that followed the next decade (namely the Clean Water Act).  To say that Sandy is our “Cuyahoga River moment for climate change” is a significant claim, one which will certainly be part of the story if climate change action occurs in the next years.  This post is not going to evaluate whether the combination of devastation in New York City and Bloomberg’s apparent push for climate action will combine into a new climate moment.

The question is whether we really should learn from disasters?  It seems that those quoted above are frustrated that preventative knowledge about the impacts of climate change have not resulted in political action and so they are hopeful that disaster-based learning will fill in that gap.  Certainly, humans learn both through preventative knowledge and though the after effects from disastrous impacts, but do we want to rely on the latter for climate action?

Like Mann and Mooney, I find the political neglect of climate change to be absolutely ridiculous.  But I’m afraid that learning through disasters might not result in a better discussion, it might actually lead to a worse one.  For a couple of reasons.

First, learning through disasters does not necessarily lead to mitigation.  I remember an incident from when I was younger of a celebration after a baseball game (or something) and the whole team went out for Pizza.  One member got sick and the lesson they learned was “Pizza at this place is not good” when the lesson they should have learned, and did much later, was that “I have issues with dairy and should limit its intake everywhere.”  My point is this, it is just as likely that people learn “We need better sea walls and pump systems in subways” as they learn “We need to mitigate climate change.”  Although adaptation will have to be part of any solution, it is quite possible that adaptation will be the only solution to come out of Sandy.

Second, learning through disasters may lead to politically expedient solutions.  Since natural disasters occur regularly and are largely unstoppable (although their effects are of course social and political), the solution may simply be lessening the consequences.  This results in politically expedient solutions rather than solutions to actually deal with the problem.  This may feed the issue above in resulting in a narrow focus solely on adaptation to climate change without any mitigation.

Finally, learning through disasters is not necessarily a collective process.  The fact is that we need learning to happen in multiple places at the same time.  Learning through disaster is likely to be partial and focused in few areas, if it occurs at all.  If the great ports of the world all get together and push for climate change action, it still is going to be restrained by places not directly impacted by these extreme weather events (of course we shouldn’t forget that summer drought and winter hurricanes may not be so unrelated).  The IPCC process has actually been quite good at tying diverse extreme weather events together and clearly augmenting how they are impacted by climate change.  Disaster-learning, in contrast, is always “winning the last war”-type mentality which responds to the last disaster that struck that location without the holistic approach that may be necessary.

We need to learn about climate change and how to protect ourselves and others from its impacts.  We’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn from them whether that is from predictive studies like the IPCC reports or whether that is from disasters.  The question is now, how do we learn from events as they change.

Hoping that the horrible destruction and death of Sandy at least gets us to think about what we are doing to the climate is one path.  This path has problems though with partial, easy options being preferred over the hard, collective choices that need to be taken.  Sandy may prove to be the focusing event that Mooney and Mann think it could be.  It could also prove to spur narrow, expedient solutions that allow us to neglect the importance of mitigation which needs to happen immediately.  Let’s hope we learn, and hope we learn the right way.


One thought on “Do we want to learn from disasters? Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

  1. Pingback: What will be the legacy of Doha? « Lullaby of the Commons

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