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:


About Nick Brooks

Nick Brooks is Director of Garama 3C Ltd, a small consulting firm specialising in climate change and development. Garama offers consultancy and training services to government, multilateral organisations, NGOs and the private sector, with a focus on mainstreaming climate change adaptation into decision-making and planning. with a background in climate science (see and for more details). After graduating with a degree in Geophysics from Edinburgh University in 1993, and a brief postgraduate role at the UK Met Office, Nick completed a PhD on drought in the Sahel at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in 1999. He subsequently undertook postdoctoral work at the University of Reading, using remote sensing and field surveys to identify archaeological sites and indicators of past environmental change in the Libyan Sahara. Nick then moved back to UEA, where he worked as a researcher on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. In 2005 Nick became an independent consultant, working on climate change adaptation and related issues with a variety of clients including UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, IUCN, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In 2012 Nick established Garama 3C Ltd, continuing his work with DFID and AfDB, working with new clients, and developing Garama's climate change training courses. Nick continues to be active in research, working with colleagues at UEA and elsewhere on human responses to past climate change. This work focuses on adaptation during the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition, from around 6400-5000 years ago. Nick established the Western Sahara Project, and is a co-director of the project with Joanne Clarke at UEA. The Western Sahara Project examines the transition to aridity in the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara, through an archaeological and palaeoenvironmental lens.
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