Skip to main content

Climate change is real

By Chris Field, Special to CNN
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Thu November 1, 2012
Earth movers push sand off the road that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
Earth movers push sand off the road that was washed in from Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Field: Superstorm Sandy gave the Eastern seaboard a pounding
  • He says rising sea level has greatly complicated problem of protecting coastline
  • Storm tracks outside tropics moving further from the equator, he says
  • Field: One key to disaster planning may be that the future won't look like the past

Editor's note: Chris Field is the director of the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of a working group tasked with assessing climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

(CNN) -- Hurricane Sandy gave the Eastern seaboard a real pounding this week, with heavy rain, widespread flooding and high winds.

In addition to damage from water and wind, the East Coast is experiencing cascading effects of power outages and disrupted transportation systems. Downed power lines have led to fires and electrocutions. Widespread shutdowns of government and business operations are curtailing economic activity.

More than 50 lives have been lost. It is too early to get an estimate of damages, but the economic costs will likely amount to billions or perhaps tens of billions of dollars. The element of risk is epitomized by the disabled boom of a construction crane, dangling 80 stories over the streets of Manhattan, an all-too-real sword of Damocles.

Many of the areas buffeted by Sandy were hit by Hurricane Irene in August of 2011.

What is going on? Is the punch from Sandy or the one-two pounding from Irene and then Sandy a consequence of climate change or an unlucky roll of the climate dice?

The evidence is not yet in for the East Coast in 2011 and 2012, but the general trends are increasingly clear. In its 2012 report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that "A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events."

Moore: Sandy coverage 'not news'
Superstorm Sandy cripples the East Coast
Baby Emma moved during storm
Counting the cost of Superstorm Sandy
Sandy dumps snow in West Virginia

Many observations and many lines of evidence support this conclusion. Yet, the fact that hurricanes and other climate extremes occur only rarely means that it is very difficult to know for sure that the recent pattern is really outside the range of historical variation.

Globally, we don't have conclusive evidence that hurricanes are increasing, but we do see a clear indication that the major storm tracks outside the tropics are moving further from the equator.

From the perspective of expected damages, two trends highlight causes for concern. First, economic losses from weather-related disasters have increased over the last several decades. This is mostly because of increases in the value of the assets in harm's way. Second, sea level is rising. Globally, sea level is now about 6 inches higher than in 1900.

This may not sound like much, but a modest change can have big effects. Flooding from storm surge is a classic threshold event. If the waves are 1 inch below the top of the sea wall, there is no damage. One inch above leads to flooding. This combination of increasing exposure and increasing sea level is gradually notching up the level of risk.

What can be done? For disaster managers, the long-standing foundations for effectiveness are preparation, response, and recovery. So far, disaster management agencies, from the local to the national level, have taken Sandy very seriously, appropriate for a storm of its magnitude.

The tradition in disaster management has been to base planning on past experiences. That's a reasonable approach when the future looks basically like the past. But it is a recipe for regret when climate and development are changing. Much can be done to incorporate new knowledge into disaster management, including steps to reduce the risks of future disasters.

One key is recognizing that the future won't be like the past. To cope with changes in climate, development and population, we should be building climate and sea level projections into infrastructure planning, building codes and plans for managing disasters.

We have the scientific knowledge and engineering knowledge to improve all three phases of disaster risk reduction -- preparation, response and recovery. But we don't know everything.

As a consequence, it is important to make learning by doing an integral part of disaster management. We need to continue to refine our understanding of the role of climate change in altering the risks, at the same time we test technologies and strategies for dealing with a future that we know will be different from the past.

Climate change is occurring now. We see its consequences in hotter temperatures, higher sea levels and shifted storm tracks. In many parts of the world, we are also seeing an increase in the fraction of rainfall that comes in the heaviest events. When it rains, increasingly it pours.

Climate change over the next couple of decades is already largely baked into the system, but changes beyond that are mostly in our hands. As we learn more about the links between climate change and extreme events, it will benefit all of us to think hard about the opportunities and challenges of getting a handle on climate change, so we control it and not vice versa.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Field.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT