Our hearts go out to the many who suffered through hurricane Sandy and the families of those who lost their lives. Hurricane Sandy was a record-shattering, catastrophic storm. The losses are estimated at more than $50 billion and the most recent report of casualties was 126.
Yet, as bad as the damages were, the severity was mitigated because meteorologists predicted the course and extent of the storm with remarkable accuracy and citizens heeded their warnings ("Forecasting presidents, storms and life," Tribune, Nov. 11). Days before the storm hit, preparations were under way, including closing down and sandbagging the New York City subway, boarding up buildings, canceling more than 12,000 airplane flights and evacuating more than half a million people.
The same professionals, the meteorologists who so skillfully helped people prepare for hurricane Sandy, are deeply concerned about climate change. In an August statement by the American Meteorological Society, they tell us: "Warming of the climate system now is unequivocal…. It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases."
They report simulations of future climate that include increased severity of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, heavy precipitation events, rising temperatures and severe droughts.
Just as heeding the storm warnings saved many people and much property, meteorologists' longer-term view of climate can help us, too. Storms pass relatively quickly, but the climate change that humans cause now can last for centuries. That is because it takes time for the Earth to react to the changes in the atmosphere. The present massive melting of glaciers and Arctic sea ice is just the beginning of a longer and more drastic process.
If we heed the meteorologists' warnings, we can move decisively from fossil fuels to cleaner energy: wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, wave, and other sources yet to be discovered.
This transition offers many benefits beyond slowing climate change. The cleaner air will reduce the hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from air pollution-related illnesses. We will have many new clean-energy jobs, which generally are safer than fossil-fuel jobs. A move to clean energy could spur the economy, achieve energy independence and improve national security. All this while we put our country in a position to successfully influence other countries like India and China that are increasing their greenhouse-gas emissions.
With all of these benefits, why is the transition so slow? The reasons are complex, but we evidently need to jump-start the transition. Consider a fee on carbon at the source (wellhead, mine or port of entry) with proceeds returned per capita to the public. If this fee would increase by a predictable amount each year, it would give a market signal to foster growth and innovation for clean energy. The market, not the government, would pick the winners.
The stakes are high, just as the stakes in an oncoming hurricane. We can heed the warnings now, or face the consequences of an increasingly warm planet. And while we are experiencing severe effects of climate change now, our grandchildren and future generations could face still more catastrophic changes.
The American Meteorological Society concluded its report with a profound final sentence: "Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life."
David Folland is a retired Sandy pediatrician who volunteers for Citizens Climate Lobby.