Post-Sandy: Weather, perception and public policy

ViewThere’s a famous cartoon by Saul Steinberg, called “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which was a cover for the New Yorker magazine in 1976. It shows 9th and 10th Avenues in Manhattan in detail with cars and people, and then the rest of the world receding in size and significance, with bare rocks designating esoteric places like Texas, Los Angeles and Nebraska, and China, Japan and Russia featured as gray shores beyond a Pacific Ocean which isn’t much bigger than the Hudson River. The concept has been imitated many times for other locales, and it’s amusing because it contains a truth about human nature: That which is going on closest to us seems most important, and we’re generally satisifed to have the vaguest notions about people and places farther away.

I believe that the same kind of distorted lens affects our perception of weather events. The storm that just occurred is so much worse than storms previously recorded in history (even if it’s not). There is a much greater number of storms and much more damaging weather these days in general than there ever has been before (even if there is not). And even the really, really smart people who are in charge of us seem to be susceptible to this “View of the World from New York on Halloween of 2012.” Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the other day that: “What is clear is that the storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before.” Governor Andrew Cuomo is quoted as saying: “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents … Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” Well, indeed, what’s reality? Is it our immediate and emotional perception in the wake of a particular weather disaster or historical facts and numbers taken from a long period of time? Roger Pielke (professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado) has pulled out some of the latter:

In studying hurricanes, we can make rough comparisons over time by adjusting past losses to account for inflation and the growth of coastal communities. If Sandy causes $20 billion in damage (in 2012 dollars), it would rank as the 17th most damaging hurricane or tropical storm (out of 242) to hit the U.S. since 1900 – a significant event, but not close to the top 10. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 tops the list (according to estimates by the catastrophe-insurance provider ICAT), as it would cause $180 billion in damage if it were to strike today. Hurricane Katrina ranks fourth at $85 billion.

To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall – Carol, Hazel and Diane – that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.

While it’s hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane “drought.” The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.

Another and broader point made by Pielke is one I will make in my own way: Since the beginning of time, the weather has been killing us. It’s been blowing us away, drowning us, and parching us. It’s destroyed our houses, wrecked our crops, and even forced us at times in large numbers to migrate. The occurrence of extreme weather events on a periodic basis is one of the most reliable features of the climate across much of planet earth. If such events stopped occurring, then that would be “climate change” indeed. Our tendency—all the more so in the modern age when we feel so relatively invincible—to want to live in places that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, like right on the edge of huge bodies of water, only increases the potential for damage and loss.

What is, in Governor Cuomo’s phrase, a denial of reality is to think that by a few changes in energy policy—e.g., making gasoline more and more prohibitively expensive—we are going to avoid houses getting washed away and people getting hurt. These things happened long before we discovered the miracle resource that is oil, and they will happen still when we all reside in single-room apartments tucked within giant windmills and carefully compost all of our organic waste to avoid prison sentences laid down by the Global Eco-Courts.

Things can be done to better prepare for such events, such as making subway tunnels more water-resistant, but nature will never stop returning to assert her power. That is the ultimate reality, whether we like it or not, and regardless of how we might prefer to perceive things in the moment.