Hurricane Sandy, attribution, and resposibility for climate change damages

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Hurricane Sandy can be blamed in whole or in part on anthropogenic climate change. In short, the consensus among people who work on climate change seems to be that this sort of storm would form in the absence of climate change, but that climate change (warmer oceans, changing weather patterns due to Arctic sea-ice melt) amplifies the severity and mediates the character of such events.

Coming hot (sorry) on the heels of a severe drought, Sandy may be concentrating the minds of at least some Americans on climate change. If these sorts of droughts and storms are to become more common (and maybe even a “new normal”), responses are required. Adaptation will be vital, but it is still worth taking action to reduce the magnitude of human-induced climate change. And that requires political and economic action.

Some years ago, I attended a meeting at which the idea of “fractional attributable risk” (FAR) was raised. Put simply, FAR involves estimating the frequency and severity of extremes under conditions with and without anthropogenic global warming, and taking the difference to see what fraction of damages from extremes in the real (warmed) world can be attributed to the influence of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations. Once you can attribute damages to emmisions, you can pass the costs of those damages on to those responsible. The scientist who presented the idea of FAR said that he believed such attribution of costs on a “polluter pays” principle was much more likely result in action to reduce emissions than any amount of global climate negotiations and agreements (think Kyoto).

Attribution of specific events – at least partially – to climate change is becoming more feasible and more routine, as this article in Bloomberg Business Week (yes, that’s right) illustrates.

This seems particularly pertinent given the multi-billion Dollar impacts of Sandy, and the growing chorus of indignation (at least among some sections of the electorate) that climate change has been completely absent from the debate leading up to next week’s Presidential election.

How can the people of America get their representatives (I use the term advisedly) to do something to address intensifying risks such as those they have experienced this year? The science of attribution of extremes provides one answer.

US citizens need to demand action on climate change from their government, and prosecute for negligence politicians who ignore it, and lobbyists (and their corporate clients) who lie about the science with the sole aim of preventing action to tackle it. Suffered losses because of an event caused or amplified by climate change? Then sue those responsible. That means the primary begetters of greenhouse gas emissions, and those who have deliberately obstructed mitigation through emissions reduction. In principle it’s simple, now that the science of attribution is more advanced.

Related link: http://www.climateimc.org/en/original-news/2011/10/27/climate-change-fractional-attribution-risk-and-russian-heat-wave

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About Nick Brooks

Nick Brooks is a climate change specialist with a background in climate science. Nick currently works as an independent consultant, focusing on climate change and international development, climate risk assessment and adaptation. He also conducts research into past climatic changes and their impacts on human societies, focusing on the Middle Holocene and the northern hemisphere sub-tropical arid belt, and the Sahara in particular. Nick is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and a co-director of the Western Sahara Project. Nick holds a degree in Geophysics from the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in climatology from the University of East Anglia.
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