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As Sandy Victims Shiver, America Must Stay Alert

While for many in the country, thoughts of Hurricane Sandy are being replaced by thoughts of the election, football, or the Thanksgiving holiday, for the tens of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey, survival and their families' well-being are still the urgent thoughts.

Two weeks after the storm, more than 68,000 people in the path of superstorm Sandy were still without power. Eighty-five died during Sandy and many are still suffering from the total loss of their homes and belongings, lack of food, heat, clothes, gas and more. At the worst point, the Long Island Power Authority reported that 8.5 million homes and businesses in the region were powerless. Gas rationing took over in the New York city area, and a blustery, snowy nor’easter storm left many shivering to stay warm without heat.

The tremendous costs of Sandy are still growing. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated that Sandy will cost the state of New York $33 billion. New Jersey’s best estimates approach $50 billion. All combined, Sandy was the second most costly storm in U.S. history, just behind Katrina. The area affected by Sandy produces fully one-fifth of our nation’s GDP, so the economic implications of this storm have yet to be fully realized. It’s clearly in our entire nation’s best interest to do everything we can to get this region up and running and back to business as quickly as possible.

To deny that Sandy was intensified because of climate change would be to deny science. Rising ocean temperatures and sea levels make storms like Sandy more powerful and disastrous.

An aerial view of Breezy Point and Long Beach, NY, Nov. 12, 2012.
(U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley / Department of Defense)

Three years ago, the federal government actually predicted that we would be seeing storms like the one we have just been through, and came up with a plan to help prevent the worst of what may come with climate change. The 40-year-old Clean Air Act mandates that the Environmental Protection Agency set new emission standards for any air pollutant that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Following that requirement, the EPA painstakingly analyzed a mountain of scientific research and issued its 2009 “Endangerment Finding,” which determined that carbon pollution threatens to intensify storms and other extreme weather events, with devastating effects on people and communities. Hurricane Sandy is literally a page straight out of this scientific finding:

For example, the EPA noted the potential of "more frequent extreme weather," leading to deaths associated with flooding (74 Fed. Reg. 66525 (12-15-2009)):

In addition to the direct effects of temperature on heat- and cold-related mortality, the administrator considers the potential for increased deaths, injuries, infectious diseases, and stress-related disorders and other adverse effects associated with social disruption and migration from more frequent extreme weather …

Increases in the frequency of heavy precipitation events are associated with increased risk of deaths and injuries as well as infectious, respiratory, and skin diseases …

Flood health impacts include deaths, injuries, infectious diseases, intoxications, and mental health problems. Increases in tropical cyclone intensity are linked to increases in the risk of deaths, injuries, waterborne and food borne diseases, as well as post-traumatic stress disorders.

Drowning by storm surge, heightened by rising sea levels and more intense storms (as projected by IPCC), is the major killer in coastal storms where there are large numbers of deaths.

And, the EPA also noted that these weather events pose a particular threat to coastal areas (74 Fed. Reg. 66498 (12-15-2009)):

Overall, the evidence on risk of adverse impacts for coastal areas provides clear support for a finding that greenhouse gas air pollution endangers the welfare of current and future generations.

The most serious potential adverse effects are the increased risk of storm surge and flooding in coastal areas from sea level rise and more intense storms. Observed sea level rise is already increasing the risk of storm surge and flooding in some coastal areas. The conclusion in the assessment literature that there is the potential for hurricanes to become more intense (and even some evidence that Atlantic hurricanes have already become more intense) reinforces the judgment that coastal communities are now endangered by human-induced climate change, and may face substantially greater risk in the future …

In addition, coastal areas face other adverse impacts from sea level rise such as land loss due to inundation, erosion, wetland submergence, and habitat loss. The increased risk associated with these adverse impacts also endangers public welfare, with an increasing risk of greater adverse impacts in the future …

Changes in extreme weather events threaten energy, transportation, and water resource infrastructure. Vulnerabilities of industry, infrastructure, and settlements to climate change are generally greater in high-risk locations, particularly coastal and riverine areas, and areas whose economies are closely linked with climate-sensitive resources.

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with local residents at a shelter for those displaced by Hurricane Sandy,
Oct. 31, 2012. (Pete Souza / White House)

After the storm hit, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Obama worked together across party lines to bring relief as fast as possible. Absent from their action was the usual political finger-pointing and positioning; instead they just cooperated and problem-solved to help communities and families, and they commended each other for their efforts.

This is the kind of cooperation and response that climate change demands from our nation’s leaders.

In his victory speech after the election, President Obama declared, "We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

We need strong leadership from President Obama and his administration over the next four years to implement strong and bold policies—such as limits on carbon pollution for existing power plants and a host of policies that will transition us away from dirty carbon-intensive energy sources like tar sands and coal and toward low-carbon, renewable energy sources (Grist rounds up the prospects for these here)—that will protect American children, families and businesses from the worst impacts of climate change and guarantee jobs and prosperity for generations to come.

And just as the Republican governor and the Democratic president worked together in their response to Sandy, we need the same leadership in Congress to protect public health and welfare in the face of climate change.

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