Superstorm Sandy: The answer is blowing in the wind

By Ameen Izzadeen
This time around, there is no room for conspiracy theories on whodunit when Superstorm Sandy left a trail of devastation on the United States’ east coast in two days. When terrorists attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, many were the theories that arose in its aftermath. One such theory said Israel’s intelligence outfit, Mossad, masterminded the attacks. In a worldwide poll carried out by the World Public Opinion affiliated to the University of Maryland, only 46 per cent of those polled outside the US believed that al-Qaeda was responsible. Some 25 per cent said they did not know while 15 per cent said the United States was behind it and seven per cent pointed their finger at Israel.
But when natural disasters happen, al-Qaeda extremists or others of their ilk pale into insignificance compared to bigger culprits — those who are responsible for environmental crimes. Among them are big industrial and industrialising states where the interests of the capitalist class supersede the urgency to protect the environment. The big industrial nations’ irresponsible if not reckless behaviour has contributed to the failure of a series of summits on environment in recent years in Copenhagen, Durban and Rio.
With the industrial nations placating the capitalist industries, many of which do not give a damn about the climate change and its disastrous effects, the earth summit in Doha next month is unlikely to elicit any significant commitment from the main culprits to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Has the failure of the world’s top polluters to come up with a binding treaty on climate change got anything to do with Hurricane or Superstorm Sandy, which is, in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s words, “a storm of unprecedented proportions”? It affected some 50 million people in ten US states; 6.5 million homes and businesses were without power; more than 60 people died in the US, 19,500 flights were cancelled and the damage caused to property is conservatively estimated at US$ 50-70 billion.
According to climate scientists, most Atlantic hurricanes begin to form when thunderstorms along the west coast of Africa drift out over warm ocean waters that are at least 27 degrees Celsius, where they encounter converging winds from around the equator. This explanation raises a question over a possible link between the rising temperature of the ocean or global warming and deadly hurricanes.
A new study by the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Ice and Climate has claimed that rising sea temperatures contribute to frequent and more severe hurricanes.
Based on this report, journalist Jason Koebler wrote an article in the US News and World Report and it appeared on October 16 when Hurricane Sandy was not even born.
According to the study, hurricanes in the southeast Atlantic have been increasing over the past 90 years, and there seems to be more hurricanes in “warm years,” where water surface temperatures are higher than normal.
“We show that there is a difference in frequency of cyclones between cold and warm years, and that the effect is strongest for the larger cyclones and hurricanes,” the Copenhagen study said.
Catastrophic hurricanes, such as 2005’s Katrina, are twice as likely to occur during warm years as they are in cold years, according to Aslack Grinsted, one of the report’s authors.
“You can’t say [global warming] caused any single event, but when we start to see a trend like this, I think it shows that there’s a good chance these hurricanes wouldn’t be happening without warming,” Grinsted says. “What I show is only correlation, but it’s purely consistent with the hypothesis that warming goes along with more frequent, large hurricanes.” (
Given this correlation between global warming and high frequency of hurricanes and storms and possibly other catastrophic natural disasters such as crop failure, floods and prolonged droughts, one would expect the world leaders to act more responsibly and take the climate talks more seriously without succumbing to the pressure from the industrial lobby in their countries.
President Barack Obama during his debates with Republican rival Mitt Romney claimed that his administration would intensify efforts to produce as much green energy as possible during his second term – a move that would also ensure the United States’ energy independence. But such commitment was missing at global level. President Obama, who is reaping a political windfall from the hurricane by making a whirlwind tour of the affected areas, did not even go to the Rio+20 summit that was held in June this year to commemorate the first Earth summit twenty years ago.
Activists hit out at the Obama administration for its failure to show leadership qualities in tackling the greatest threat to mankind’s survival –global warming. Just as former US president George H. Bush drew the ire of the environmentalist for scuttling the first Earth Summit 20 years ago, President Obama came under heavy fire for trying to kill the Rio+20 summit.
A Rio+20 agenda topic that met with tough US resistance was a High Seas Biodiversity Agreement to stop the plunder of the high seas. “If President Obama wants to prove he cares about sustainable development, he should instruct his negotiators to finally protect the high seas,” Phil Kline, senior campaigner at Greenpeace USA, told Inter-Press Service’s UN bureau chief Thalif Deen ahead of the Rio+20 summit.
Ironic though it maybe, it looks like that the hurricane that took shape in the high seas — whose wellbeing was of little concern to the Obama administration — was bringing along with it a warning to the US, the planet’s second chief polluter, that it should play a constructive role in climate talks and be ready to make sacrifices.
But will it heed the warning is the big question. Seven years ago Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in South Carolina in the US, prompting scientists, who believed that global warming was a chief contributory factor for it, to issue a similar warning. The topic cropped up again in August last year, when hurricane Irene hit the US east coast with devastating consequences. Yet the US saw no urgency to take serious measures to check the rising global temperatures, as its stand at the Rio+20 proved.
Its policies and intransigency together with the reluctance of other main polluters – China (No. 1), Russia (No. 3) and India (No. 4) – to make sacrifices have made the planet earth an increasingly unsafe place for human habitation. Industrial development is a necessity but it cannot come at the cost of human suffering or threats to the collective survival of mankind.
There is another lesson for the US in the hurricanes that have visited its human habitats – i.e. the pain of human suffering is same whether it is caused by natural disasters or by human action such as wars. The pain of losing a loved one is the same for a US citizen and for an Iraqi or an Afghani or a Pakistani. As Sandy slammed New Jersey, we heard the sad story of a couple being killed by a falling tree as they got out of their vehicle. The children, aged 11 and 14, survived inside the car. Hundreds of children have become orphans in Pakistan also after their parents were killed in US drone attacks. The US justifies such extrajudicial killings on the grounds that the drones targeted terrorists. But there are no international observers on ground to check the veracity of the claim. Often it is the innocents who get killed. Unlike the victims of Superstorm Sandy, the drone victims have no insurance cover. They get no compensation or even apology from either the United States or Pakistan which shamelessly permits and helplessly watches the killing of its own citizens by a foreign country.
In Fallujah, Iraq, the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous bombs or poison bombs by the United States in its war to crush the resistance movement there has seen an alarmingly high incidence of birth defects. As though these devastations and human suffering were not enough, the United States together with its ally, Israel, is preparing for a war against Iran.
One hopes if the US leaders are incapable of feeling the pain of these people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries where US military intervention has led to human suffering, at least the US citizens who were affected by hurricanes would be. Let the victims of Superstorm Sandy rise up against wars, environment pollution and injustice.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on November 2, 2012)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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