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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT