Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A few years ago, Washington, D.C., was subjected to a freakish winter — a series of nightmarish snowstorms that crippled a city ill-equipped to handle them. The back-to-back blizzards prompted derisive howls from the flat-earthers in Congress who insist that human-caused climate change is a hoax. The grandchildren of Sen. James Inhofe — Oklahoma Republican and flat-earther-in-chief — built an igloo from mounds of D.C.’s snow and proclaimed it Al Gore’s new home.

Is Inhofe still denying that human activity has altered the climate after the ravages of Superstorm Sandy? Probably. He has invested too much in his ignorance to change his mind.

But the storm’s horrifyingly destructive powers just might have gotten the attention of more thoughtful Americans, those who are inclined to respect scientific data and to pay attention to clear indications of a “new normal” in the weather. Extreme weather events that were once believed to be once-in-a-century catastrophes are cropping up with peculiar frequency. That’s no hoax.

Let me be clear: I know of no conscientious scientist who states with certainty that a warming planet caused the freakish storm, which combined a hurricane with a “nor’easter” to produce howling winds, surging seas and early blizzards. But many have said that a warming planet exacerbated Sandy’s destructive impulses.

“Storm surge is the big story here,” University of Georgia meteorologist Marshall Shepherd told me, noting that much of the destruction was created by seawater, which was whipped up by high winds and surged inland. “We know sea level rise has occurred, so storm surge is exacerbated. That’s one area where we can put the DNA of climate change on Sandy.”

For years now, climate scientists have produced reports warning coastal cities of the dangers they face because of rising sea levels produced by a warming planet. Those reports have been ignored or, worse, dismissed by politicians and a public who didn’t want to believe that could be true.

Climatologists have also pointed out that extreme weather events — calamitous hurricanes, severe droughts, devastating floods — are occurring more frequently. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted last week: “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.”