Wake Up

Hurricane Sandy’s Unmistakable Message

While politicians ignore the evidence of climate change, its consequences are made clear. By Michael Daly.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Four days after 24-year old Jake Vogelman was killed by a hurricane-toppled tree, NYPD detectives came to his house with his personal effects: a black leather wallet still wet from the rain and a watch that was still working.

“9:07 p.m.,” a family friend said after checking it.

“9:09,” another friend said. “But mine’s probably two minutes fast.”

The first friend placed the watch down on a table beside the contents of the wallet, which were set out on paper towels to dry. The watch continued marking the seconds that Vogelman and all the others killed in the storm would never see.

Each second was also one closer to the next extreme weather event, disasters certain to come ever more frequently as a result of climate change.

Each second was also one closer to the time when it will be too late to do anything about it.

The next critical moment will come on Election Day, Tuesday, when Vogelman would have voted at Public School 321, directly across the street from his Brooklyn home.

“Obama lost one vote,” his mother, Marcia Sikowitz, noted on Friday.

Vogelman certainly had not been swayed to the other side by Mitt Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention in which he mocked Barack Obama’s concerns regarding climate change.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans …” Romney began.

That actually drew laughs from the convention floor.

“And heal the planet,” Romney continued, to more laughs.

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Romney then said, “My promise is to help you and your family.”

Vogelman’s grieving family is proof that the power of an unhealed planet can batter you beyond all help. Millions of others who were in Sandy’s path can attest that weather can leave you in need of more help than you ever imagined needing.

One person who took note of the lesson imparted by Sandy was Mayor Bloomberg. He may have been shockingly out of touch with his constituents when he initially insisted on going ahead with the New York Marathon while so many were in desperate need, but he immediately understood the significance of the storm itself.

The same mayor who has worked tirelessly to reduce the flow of illegal guns also recognizes that climate change is like a huge cocked pistol pointed at the whole planet. He made that view clear on Thursday, when he endorsed Obama.

“The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast—in lost lives, lost homes and lost business—brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief,” Bloomberg said in his written endorsement. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Bloomberg noted that Obama has undertaken major initiatives to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which account for virtually all of global warming. Bloomberg also noted that Romney himself had initiated a plan to address climate change while governor of Massachusetts. Bloomberg quoted Romney as having written at the time, “These are actions we can and must take now, if we are to have ‘no regrets’ when we transfer our temporary stewardship of this Earth to the next generation.”

Bloomberg allowed that he might very well have endorsed “the Romney of 2003.” The Romney of 2012 treats climate change as a joke (when he mentions it at all), to the dismay of one noted scientist who was excited by those earlier initiatives in her native state of Massachusetts.

“A totally different guy,” says Jennifer Francis, researcher with the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent study linking Arctic warming to extreme weather in the mid-latitudes.

Francis did not fail to register that neither candidate even mentioned climate change during the presidential debates. The candidates apparently see it as the environmental equivalent of gun control, offering no political gain in even discussing it.

“I think Mother Nature took note of that and sort of made her own statement,” Francis says.

That statement came in the form of Hurricane Sandy. Francis emphasizes that such a monster storm is the result of a complex interplay of numerous factors, but these unquestionably include record warming in the Arctic region and accompanying changes in the jet stream.

“The jet stream always has something to say about where hurricanes go when they leave the tropics,” she says.

And a warmer Atlantic Ocean seems to have kept Sandy roaring toward New York and New Jersey. “It may have allowed Sandy to survive as it got this far north this late in the season,” she says.

Whatever the particulars of this specific storm, few knowledgable scientists have any doubt that climate change largely born of fossil-fuel emissions will generate such extremes with greater and greater frequency. And this certainty imparts a surreal twist to the widespread desperation to get gasoline in the wake of Sandy.

“The irony is kind of amazing,” Francis says.

One tiny glint of hope that we might learn at least an indirect lesson from Sandy came after Vogelman’s funeral. A family of mourners had been unable to join the funeral procession because they could not get gas for their Saab. Another mourner said he was thankful he has a Prius that can get as many as 50 miles a gallon. The Saab owner said maybe his family should think of that when it comes time to get a new car.

Up in Massachusetts, Francis was telling a reporter over the phone that the initiatives that the Romney of 2003 set in motion continue to make her state the most energy efficient in the nation. She does not consider these measures futile because climate change continues to accelerate toward what might best be called global derangement.

“We should try anything we can do to slow it down,” she says.

But in the absence of quick and sweeping actions on the federal level, local governments had best be studying ways to anticipate the possible impact of extreme weather and how to safeguard the public.

“Get people out of harm’s way,” Francis says. “Because it’s coming.”

Meanwhile, Vogelman’s watch continues to mark the dwindling hours before the election. He will not be able to vote, but he will be in the polling booth with you, as will the young woman who was killed with him and the Staten Island toddlers who were swept away by the surge and the off-duty cop who drowned saving his family and all the others who died during the storm. Their lesson is clear even if we fail to heed it.