Global Warming Didn’t “Cause” this Storm, but …

Human beings are creating the conditions for devastating storms like this to become more and more common. If you want to better understand why, check out this interview with Bill McKibben (after the jump)

Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of
He is author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough
New Planet.
Greg Jones, climate scientist and professor of
environmental studies at Southern Oregon
University in Ashland.
Much of the East Coast is shut down today as
residents prepare for Hurricane Sandy, a massive
storm that could impact up to 50 million people
from the Carolinas to Boston. New York and other
cities have shut down schools and transit systems.
Hundreds of thousands of people have already been
evacuated. Millions could lose power over the next
day. The storm has already killed 66 people in the
Caribbean, where it battered Haiti and Cuba.
Meteorologists say Sandy could be the largest ever to
hit the U.S. mainland. While not as powerful as
Hurricane Katrina, the storm stretches a record 520
miles from its eye. Earlier this morning, the National
Hurricane Center said the hurricane’s wind speed
increased to 85 miles per hour with additional
strengthening possible. Describing it as a rare
hybrid “superstorm,” forecasters say Sandy was
created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself
around a tropical storm. The storm could cause up
to 12 inches of rain in some areas, as well as up to
three feet of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains.
Flooding is also expected to be a major problem. The
National Weather Service has warned of record-level
flooding and “life-threatening storm surges” in
coastal areas. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission
has announced it’s taking special precautions for
the storm. There are at least 16 nuclear reactors
located within the path of the storm. Six oil
refineries are also in the storm’s path.
While the news media have been covering Hurricane
Sandy around the clock, little attention has been
paid to the possible connection between the storm
and climate change. Scientists have long warned
how global warming would make North Atlantic
hurricanes more powerful. Just two weeks ago, the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
published a major study on the connection between
warmer sea surface temperatures and increase in
stronger Atlantic hurricanes. The report said, quote,
“In particular, we estimate that Katrina-magnitude
events have been twice as frequent in warm years
compared with cold years.”
We begin today’s show with two guests. With me
here in Oregon, we’re joined by Greg Jones, climate
scientist and professor of environmental studies at
Southern Oregon University in Ashland. And joining
us by Democracy Now! video stream is Bill
McKibben, co-founder and director of He’s
author of numerous books, including Eaarth:
Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. On November
7th, is launching a 20-city nationwide tour
called “Do the Math” to connect the dots between
extreme weather, climate change and the fossil fuel
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start
with Bill McKibben. Bill, you’ve just made it back to
Vermont, to your home. Can you talk about the
significance of what the East Coast is facing right
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I think, Amy, that the first
thing is this is a storm of really historic proportion.
It’s really like something we haven’t seen before. It’s
half, again, the size of Texas. It’s coming across
water that’s near record warmth as it makes its way
up the East Coast. Apparently we’re seeing lower
pressures north of Cape Hatteras than have been
ever recorded before. The storm surge, which is
going to be the very worst part of this storm, is being
driven by that huge size and expanse of the storm,
but of course it comes in on water that’s already
somewhat higher than it would have been in the
past because of sea level rise. It’s-it’s a monster.
It’s-Frankenstorm, frankly, is not only a catchy
name; in many ways, it’s the right name for it. This
thing is stitched together from elements natural and
unnatural, and it seems poised to cause real havoc.
The governor of Connecticut said yesterday, “The
last time we saw anything like this was never.” And I
think that’s about right.
AMY GOODMAN: There certainly was a lack of
discussion, to put it mildly, in the presidential
debates around the issue of climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think it was raised at all in
the three debates.
BILL McKIBBEN: How do you think Mitt Romney is
feeling this morning for having the one mention he’s
made the whole time? His big laugh line at the
Republican convention was how silly it was for
Obama to be talking about slowing the rise of the
oceans. I’d say that’s-wins pretty much every prize
for ironic right now.
There has been a pervading climate silence. We’re
doing our best to break that. Yesterday afternoon,
there was a demonstration in Times Square, a sort
of giant dot to connect the dots with all the other
climate trouble around the world. Overnight,
continuing in Boston, there’s a week-long vigil
outside Government Center to try and get the Senate
candidates there to address the issue of climate
It’s incredibly important that we not only-I mean,
first priority is obviously people’s safety and
assisting relief efforts in every possible way, but it’s
also really important that everybody, even those
who aren’t in the kind of path of this storm, reflect
about what it means that in the warmest year in
U.S. history, when we’ve seen the warmest month,
July, of any month in a year in U.S. history, in a
year when we saw, essentially, summer sea ice in
the Arctic just vanish before our eyes, what it means
that we’re now seeing storms of this unprecedented
magnitude. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play the clip you’re referring
to of Mitt Romney at the Republican convention in
MITT ROMNEY: President Obama promised to
begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal
the planet. My promise is to help you and your
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney at the
conventions, but-at the Republican convention.
But again, when it came to the presidential debate,
neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney raised
the issue of climate change. I wanted to bring Greg
Jones, climate scientist and professor of
environmental studies here at Southern Oregon
University in Ashland, into the conversation. The
connection between the superstorm we’re seeing
and climate change?
GREG JONES: Well, this is clearly a very unique
event. And I-as a climate scientist, to some degree,
I kind of worry that these type of unique events are
clearly more frequent in the future. We have the
conditions that have produced something that could
be very damaging for the East Coast of the United
States, and I often wonder why we don’t seem more
of them. But, you know, the question is, today is, is
that where we are in terms of our climate science
understanding of these things, the rarity of this
event is what makes it very unique. And I think all
of the conditions came together to produce a
superstorm. And we’ve had a few that have been
close to this, but given the number of people
involved and the location where it’s coming
onshore, it’s a very problematic event.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, what do you think
has to happen now? You have been traveling the
world, warning people, working with organizations
around the issue of climate change. Do you feel like
the kind of organizing you’re doing has an effect? I
mean, you see these three presidential debates.
Tens of millions of people watch them. They sort of
define the discourse in this country. And yet, not
raised in any-it’s not only the candidates don’t
raise them, the reporters who are the moderators of
these debates don’t raise the issue.
BILL McKIBBEN: Look, we’re up against the most
powerful and richest industry on earth, and the
status quo is their friend, and they want nothing to
change. And until we’re able to force them to the
table, as it were, very little will happen in
Washington or elsewhere. That’s why we launched
this huge tour, beginning the night after the
election, not coincidentally, in Seattle and
continuing around the country. You can find out
about it at But the point is that we
really finally need to have this reckoning. Either the
fossil fuel industry keeps pouring carbon into the
atmosphere and we keep seeing this kind of event,
or we take some action.
Here’s the thing always to remember. The crazy
changes that we’re seeing now, the-you know, the
fact that we broke the Arctic this summer, the fact
that the oceans are 30 percent more acid, that’s all
that’s all happened when you raise the temperature
of the earth one degree. The same scientists who
told us that was going to happen are confident that
the temperature will go up four degrees, maybe five,
unless we get off coal and gas and oil very quickly.
And to do that, you know, it’s nice to talk to
Washington, but in certain ways Washington has
turned into customer service for the fossil fuel
industry. It’s time to take on that industry directly.
Not time today. Time today is to take care of people
all up and down the East Coast, to work in the relief
efforts, to get the message out as this storm heads
north. We in Vermont, knowing from last year, from
last year’s superstorm, Irene, have a pretty good idea
of just how traumatic this is going to be. So the
short-term effort is all about people. But the slightly
longer-term effort is to make sure that we’re not
creating a world where this kind of thing happens
over and over and over again.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, you mentioned that the storm
is made up of elements both natural and unnatural.
What do you mean by that?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, look, I mean, global warming
doesn’t cause hurricanes. We’ve always had
hurricanes. Hurricanes cause when a wave, tropical
wave, comes off the coast of Africa and moves on to
warm water and the wind shear is low enough to let
it form a circulation, and so on and so forth. But
we’re producing conditions like record warm
temperatures in seawater that make it easier for this
sort of thing to get, in this case, you know, up the
Atlantic with a head of steam. We’re making-we’re
raising the sea levels. And when that happens, it
means that whatever storm surge comes in comes in
from a higher level than it would have before. We’re
seeing-and there are a meteorologists-although I
don’t think this is well studied enough yet to really
say it conclusively, there are people saying that
things like the huge amount of open water in the
Arctic have been changing patterns, of big wind
current patterns, across the continent that may be
contributing to these blocking pressure areas and
things that we’re seeing. But, to me, that, at this
point, is still mostly speculation.
What really is different is that there is more
moisture and more energy in this narrow envelope
of atmosphere. And that energy expresses itself in
all kind of ways. That’s why we get these record
rainfalls now, time after time. I mean, last year, it
was Irene and then Lee directly after that. This year,
this storm, they’re saying, could be a thousand-year
rainfall event across the mid-Atlantic. I think that
means more rain than you’d expect to see in a
thousand years. But I could pretty much-I’d be
willing to bet that it won’t be long before we see
another one of them, because we’re changing the
odds. By changing the earth, we change the odds.
And one thing for all of us to remember today, even
as we deal with the horror on the East Coast, is that
this is exactly the kind of horror people have been
dealing with all over the world. Twenty million
people were dislocated by flood in Pakistan two
years ago. There are people with kind of existential
fears about whether their nations will survive the
rise of sea level. We’re seeing horrific drought not
just in the Midwest, but in much of the rest of the
world. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened
on earth, climate change, and our response has to
be the same kind of magnitude.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, why are you waiting
’til after the presidential election to have your 20-
city tour raising the issue, calling it “Do the Math”?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I mean, we’ve been involved
as we can be in the political fight, but we don’t want
this issue to go away when elections are over. Even
if Barack Obama wins, we do not want everybody to
just, “Oh, well, he’ll take care of it.” That’s what
happened four years ago. What we want is for-no
matter who wins and no matter who wins in the
Senate and the House, we want to put the fossil fuel
industry front and center and put real pressure on
them. We’re going to try and launch a divestment
movement that looks like the one around South
Africa a quarter-century ago. We’re going to be
bringing home the math that I described in a piece
in Rolling Stone this summer that went kind of
viral, explaining that the fossil fuel industry already
has five times more carbon in its inventory than
even the most conservative government thinks
would be safe to burn. And every day, they go out
looking for more. This is a rogue industry now. I
mean, if Sandy is a rogue storm, then, say, Exxon is
a rogue industry. They, in their inventory alone,
have more than 7 percent of the carbon necessary to
take us past two degrees. They’re outlaws not
against the laws of the state, but against the laws of
physics. And you begin to see the results of that
when you look around events like today’s.