Energy & Environment

Global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy

George Lakoff

Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy — and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.

Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies. There is a difference between systemic and direct causation. Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation. Any application of force to something or someone that always produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation. When causation is direct, the word cause is unproblematic.

Systemic causation, because it is less obvious, is more important to understand. A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions. It may be indirect, working through a network of more direct causes. It may be probabilistic, occurring with a significantly high probability. It may require a feedback mechanism. In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled. Above all, it requires a name: systemic causation.

Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water. When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.

The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident. But systemic causation is nonetheless causal. Semantics matters. Because the word cause is commonly taken to mean direct cause, climate scientists, trying to be precise, have too often shied away from attributing causation of a particular hurricane, drought, or fire to global warming. Lacking a concept and language for systemic causation, climate scientists have made the dreadful communicative mistake of retreating to weasel words. Consider this quote from “Perception of climate change,” by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

…we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.

The crucial words here are high degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small. Scientific weasel words! The power of the bald truth, namely causation, is lost. This is no small matter because the fate of the earth is at stake. The science is excellent. The scientists’ ability to communicate is lacking. Without the words, the idea cannot even be expressed. And without an understanding of systemic causation, we cannot understand what is hitting us.

Global warming is real, and it is here. It is causing  — yes, causing — death, destruction, and vast economic loss. And the causal effects are getting greater with time. We cannot merely adapt to it. The costs are incalculable. What we are facing is huge. Each day, the amount of extra energy accumulating via the heating of the earth is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Each day! Because the earth itself is so huge, this energy is distributed over the earth in a way that is not immediately perceptible by our bodies — only a fraction of a degree each day. But the accumulation of total heat energy over the earth is increasing at an astronomical rate, even though the temperature numbers look small locally — 0.8 degrees Celsius so far. If we hit 2.0 degrees Celsius, as we may before long, the earth— and the living things on it — will not recover. Because of ice melt, the level of the oceans will rise 45 feet, while huge storms, fires, and droughts get worse each year. The international consensus is that by 2.0 degrees Celsius, all civilization would be threatened if not destroyed.

What would it take to reach a 2.0 degrees Celsius increase over the whole earth? Much less than you might think. Consider the amount of oil already drilled and stored by Exxon Mobil alone. If that oil were burned, the temperature of the earth would pass 2.0 degree Celsius, and those horrific disasters would come to pass. The value of Exxon Mobil — its stock price — resides in its major asset, its stored oil. The weather disasters arising from burning that oil would be so great that we would have to stop burning. That’s just Exxon Mobil’s oil. The oil stored by all the oil companies everywhere would, if burned, destroy civilization many times over. Another way to comprehend this, as Bill McKibben has observed, is that most of the oil stored all over the earth is worthless. The value of oil company stock, if Wall Street were rational, would drop precipitously. Moreover, there is no point in drilling for more oil. Most of what we have already stored cannot be burned. More drilling is pointless.

Are Bill McKibben’s and James Hansen’s numbers right? We had better have the science community double-check the numbers, and fast. Where do we start? With language. Add systemic causation to your vocabulary. Communicate the concept. Explain to others why global warming systemically caused the enormous energy and size of Hurricane Sandy, as well as the major droughts and fires. Email your media whenever you see reporting on extreme weather that doesn’t ask scientists if it was systemically caused by global warming.

Next, enact fee and dividend, originally proposed by Peter Barnes at Sky Trust and introduced as Senate legislation as the KLEAR Act by Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. More recently, legislation called fee and dividend has been proposed by James Hansen and introduced in the House by representatives John B, Larson and Bob Inglis. Next, do all we can to move to alternative energy worldwide as soon as possible.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

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Comments to "Global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy":
    • Anthony St. John

      You really ought to read UC’s very own CALIFORNIA magazine, Sep-Oct 2006 “Global Warning” special issue:

      Sadly, global warming discussions keep proving far too many, no matter how well educated, are suffering from mental failures described in the article: “Can We Adapt in Time?”

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    • Bill

      I think I am going to start a carbon credits brokerage. What a sweet deal. Out of 30,000 scientists, I got 77 to agree that man is causing any problem that has to do with the weather. Then I get the UN to agree to this easy money cash flow idea under the guise that we will make those big bad capitalists pay their fair share to those poor impoverished nations, and, we all know that the people in charge will be the real recepients of the funds, Then we get the polititians to force all businesses to pay carbon tax if they want to stay in business and if you want to expand your business, you have to buy more carbon credits.

      Genius. I am going to jump on the band wagon and get rich like the rest of the globalists

      Remember, If it sunny outside, it is global warming.
      If it is cold outside, it is global warming
      If it rains, it is global warming
      it it snows, it is global warming
      If it is a drought, it is global warming
      If it is flooding, it is global warming

      This is great, anyone want to buy some carbon credits

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    • Richard Hartung

      Look at these words carefully:

      …we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.

      I would definitely not call these weasel words. They are a good description of a technical issue, technically stated. Dr. Lakoff’s concern is that he thinks scientists should communicate in non-technical language for better understanding by non-technical people. From a communication standpoint, especially a political one, that has to be true. But look where the above quote was taken from: “Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

      What does Lakoff expect? His concern would be better directed toward establishing a mechanism for a reliable transcription of technical results into politically understandable wording. Could the University do this with a blog correlating scientific results with political issues?

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    • Stephen

      @Jerold, you could ask Lakoff if you could be his climate expert and help clue him in about how to explain how the Gulf of Mexico’s water temperature can remain stable for 70+ years, yet be evaporated at a different rate to lead to the hurricane Sandy. (OK, I know this is too simplistic, but hopefully Lakoff was interpreting what a climate scientist wrote.)

      Likewise, Lakoff could help interpret scientists’ “weasel words” into Basic English for people who can’t grasp the use of Google and Wikipedia to educate themselves before jumping on the Global Warming bandwagon.

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    • Renee Watkins

      Whenever I hear “systemic” I think of computers analyzing and correlating information that is itself often of dubious value or limited connection. The word is often used to suggest sociological and economic connections that are not carefully spelled out or tested in varied contexts.

      I wonder if the more familiar phrase “chain reaction” would better convey the relationship of global warming to great weather anomalies. The words “climate change” are quite useful too, in making people think about something bigger than the root cause, which is of course the rising temperature of the biosphere.

      I agree with the previous commenter that the “end of civilization” is not a necessary result of the destruction of coastal cities, the rapid desertification of large stretches of land, and huge numbers of ecological refugees. Civilization will probably continue even under altered circumstances and with great demographic losses and changes. What I mean by civilization is organized production, enough leisure to allow continuing arts and sciences.

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    • W McKillop

      I agree that global warming is a serious matter. I have done a considerable amount of modeling and statistical hypothesis testing. I have communicated with the IPCC and the U.S. Department of Energy, but neither of them can give me a meaningful explanation of how they established a relationship between CO2 and global warming. Please explain how the relationship was scientifically established before blaming CO2.

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    • Dave L

      Great piece, George.

      David, that depends. If the extractable stored carbon were put into the atmosphere over the next 150 years (this would be the worst-case scenario), civilization as we know it would be gone. Why? Because the rate of global temp increase would be unprecedented in at least the last billion years of the geologic record. Species adaptation would be severely stressed, and the number of gaps that would appear in the ecosystem could easily create ecological collapse. Ocean pH is already dropping more rapidly than at any point in the last 300 million years. That would simply accelerate. The PETM event would look like a mild summer. It doesn’t take much to cause food riots when food prices stay consistently high. Rage is a wildcard.

      We’re not going to dig up all the carbon, though. Not yet, anyway.

      Btw, that worst-case scenario I sketched is pretty conservative. There is speculation, among the more edgy folks, that rapid warming will lead an unprecedented rate of Antarctic ice sheet melt, which in turn will lead to abrupt isostatic rebound, allowing a natural volcanic seam that stretches across Antarctica to mass erupt, plunging the planet into a volcanic winter and near-snowball Earth. Extremely unlikely.

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    • John

      I’m wondering if the Global Warming that caused Sandy is the same Global Warming that caused the 1938 hurricane that destroyed Long Island, demolished 57,000 homes and killed about 750 people. Or could it possibly be the same Global Warming that caused the 1900 Galveston hurricane that destroyed the town and killed 8,000 people. Maybe it also caused the Boxing Day tsunami. If it is, then we need definitely to outlaw Global Warming, box it up and ship it to Mars, along with Governor Moonbeam.

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    • Phil

      I think every 70 years or so NYC gets a massive hurricane. Sandy was smaller than the 1938 hurricane (massive Cat 5) because Global Warming is systemically making the hurricanes smaller. e.g., The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 had massive 22 foot storm surge!

      It seems if we want to have smaller hurricanes, we should coat the icecaps with black powder to help absorb some of the sun’s radiation.

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    • Len

      There has been no warming for the last 15 – 16 years therefore “warmists” are alarmed that there “global warming” theories are incorrect that is why they create these false claims that ALL and ANY non regular weather events are caused by “global warming”.

      There were similar events throughout the past in living memory that no doubt were caused by “global warming” but CO2 levels were lower.

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    • benwelgoed

      There’s one obvious level on which the statement that GW would destroy civilization is all too valid, and that is that the rising sea level, when it occurs, will eliminate currently highly-populated areas as being livable. That means billions of people will have to move to less favorable areas. They would need to rebuild, AND do that without using an extraordinary amount of energy. All that would very likely involve millions and millions of people crossing borders, aggravate GW in the process, wars, disease, you name it. All this ‘speculation’ isn’t particularly farfetched. We’ve all known about the rising seas for quite some time now, and recently it’s been happening at about 20 to 30 cm / century, which will likely accelerate with the tundra giving up its methane, etc., etc. And, not to really kill the party spirit, but also, not to forget: Higher temperatures do enhance the spread of disease.

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    • Stephen Lewis

      As the sea level rises slowly over geological time, we humans will recede along with our shorelines and those new areas will be coastal. I kinda doubt that these new coastal areas are going to be less than favorable.

      It is well understood that climate change is a challenge for us all but the climate has been changing ever since there has been a climate and may not be caused by mankind. I don’t want to start throwing money at a problem humans don’t understand enough about. Issues of over consumption and drinkable water supplies are far more critical and immediate. If we do not solve these crisis, we may not be here to enjoy the devastations systematically caused by “Global Warming”. Hell, dealing with our consumption practices will reduce the use of machinery that is the direct causations of pollutants in the atmosphere leading to this man made global warming. (if that’s what you believe)

      It may be that we are heading into another period of “fireball earth” which is opposite “snowball earth” and could just be a galactic “El Nino”. We could pull the plug on machinery for 10 to 50 years and see if the climate has a reaction but that is not likely to happen for many selfish reasons.

      I’m rambling now, sorry. I am all over the map with how I feel about this topic. Climate Change is real but solutions are very illusory. That is the problem and the source of anxiety.

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    • pabelmont

      This is a beautiful exposition of the science portion of this disaster.

      I have tried to write sensibly about the political portion of this disaster, that is, about the reasons the USA’s government has failed to begin even taking baby steps in response to Global Warming.

      The political problem is that USA is ruled by a system of “oligarchy”, a coalition of BIG-MONEY folks (individuals like the KOCHs and ADELSON, and corporations and industrial groups like BIG-BANKS, BIG-OIL) and these entities do not care about the long term good of anyone, not even of themselves, but only of continuing to make short-term profits. Their motto is, in effect, “apres moi le deluge”, and SANDY was a foretaste of deluges sure to come.

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    • David

      “The oil stored by all the oil companies everywhere would, if burned, destroy civilization many times over.”

      Sources? I’m all for reducing greenhouse gas output and global warming, but last I checked nobody thought that civilization would be destroyed many times over.

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    • jerry becker

      as a teacher of physics and chemistry, and having stayed current with all the evidence for globaL WARMING, i MUST CONCUR* WITH THIS ARTICLE–WITH A CAVEAT
      1-OVER GEOLOGICAL EONS THERE HAVE BEEN VAST ECOLOGICAL CRISES INVOLVING GLOBAL WARMING IN WHICH THE HUMAN SPECIES WAS NOT PRESENT
      2-THE STEERING OF SANDY UP THE EAST COAST IS STILL A RARE PHENOMENON AND UNTIL MORE THAN THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS LINKING JET STREAM ERRATIC movement TO MELTING OF ARCTIC ICE IS PRESENTED,I MUST WITHHOLD TOTAL
      AGREEMENT!If the pattern continues each year….gaia help us!
      3-THE SHIFT TO ALTERNATIVE FUEL SOURCES WHILE NECESSARY IS STILL IN ITS INFANCY. THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE, HOWEVER, AND HYBRID VEHICLE ADVANCEMENT IS OCCURING NOW! that is practically where our attempts to manage fossil fuel consumption use must come in our lifetime

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