Never has a hurricane been more aptly, if tragically, named than Sandy, the superstorm that flooded New York City and battered much of the East Coast. At press time, the storm had killed at least forty-three people and caused an estimated $32 billion in damages to buildings and infrastructure—figures expected to increase in the coming days as emergency personnel pick through the wreckage—and left 8 million homes without electricity.
Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
And so it has been with America’s response to climate change. For more than twenty years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather—summers like that of 2012, when the United States endured the hottest July on record and the worst drought in fifty years, mega-storms like the one now punishing the East Coast.
Hurricanes are fueled by hot ocean surface temperatures. The Atlantic Ocean is about five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual this fall, and as Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University has noted, about 15 percent of this extra heat is directly due to global warming. The flooding unleashed by Sandy is especially destructive, Hayhoe adds, because global warming has caused sea levels in the New York region to rise by one foot over the past century.
But scientists’ warnings have been by and large ignored—at least within the corridors of power in Washington. As in the myth of Cassandra, today it remains unclear whether even the latest catastrophe—the devastation of America’s greatest city, its center of commerce, finance and, tellingly, the news media—will cause the nation to wake up and take serious action.
There are signs of hope. Speaking Tuesday in Minneapolis, former president Bill Clinton called out Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for ridiculing the idea of fighting climate change, thereby becoming the first political heavyweight to explicitly link Sandy with climate change. Slowing the rise of the oceans, as candidate Barack Obama pledged to do in 2008, but which Romney mocked in his address to this year’s Republican national convention, sounds like a pretty good idea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Clinton said, adding, “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could have done that yesterday.”