It couldn’t have come at a better time.
While the losses are both immense and shocking, Hurricane Sandy’s arrival just ahead of the US election is just what the world needed. The country that uses the most oil, that has produced the greatest amount of CO2 emissions for decades and that has consistently denied the evidence of climate change, has finally been told to pay attention. Climate change, long pushed to the bottom of the campaign trail agenda is now where it should be – at the top.
Bringing tens of deaths, a crushed infrastructure and billions of dollars worth of damage, Hurricane Sandy is a wake up call. More than that, it is an event to which we should all pay heed, no matter where we are in the world. It is time to stop wasting money on senseless wars and start spending instead to protect us from a much graver threat.
Last month, I attended the General Assembly of The Club of Rome, in Bucharest. There, we were presented with the latest evidence on the effects of climate change, and they were scary. Predictions made just five years ago have already proved wildly wrong. In 2007, scientists said that they thought the Arctic would be ice free by the end of this century. At the current rate of melting however, it will now be ice free in the summer of 2015. It will be ice free all year by 2030.
This is not the main worry however, as this is floating ice. When it melts it does not raise sea levels. The real worry is the Greenland Ice Shelf, which is also melting at an unprecedented rate. If this disappears too, the effects will be catastrophic. Sea levels around the world will rise between six and seven metres, wiping out cities like New York, London and Shanghai. The addition of so much cold fresh water into the seas would also change ocean currents and weather patterns in ways we can barely imagine. At the same time, rising temperatures in the northern hemisphere now risk melting much of the Siberian permafrost, which will release vast clouds of trapped methane, accelerating the speed of climate change even more. This risks starting a chain reaction, which we could do nothing to stop.
The effects of what we are doing to the planet are all around us. From the storms and floods this year, to the record droughts. Since 1980, the number of natural catastrophes has risen from an average of 400 a year to nearly 1,000 according to Munich Re. Ironically, North America has already been more affected by extreme weather than anywhere else.
When predictions were made a few years ago, scientists said it would all be more or less okay if we limited the rise in average global temperatures to 2ºC. Yet we will miss that target now. Because we have not actually done anything to halt the damage we are doing, the amount of gas being released into the atmosphere has continued to grow. Without change, we are now heading for a 4ºC rise, which will take the Earth’s average temperature back to levels last seen 40 million years ago. This will cause the Antarctic to melt too, with sea levels rising 60-70 metres. The droughts and floods we would experience along the way would make the planet virtually uninhabitable.
While these changes have been happening, while they have been denied and ignored, we have been fighting two senseless wars instead. The first has been the fight for growth. Governments around the world have spent trillions trying to prop up their economies, to keep them growing and keep people spending. In the process, they have kept us digging up ever more of the world’s raw materials and consuming even more stuff we don’t need, making the changes to the climate even worse.
The second senseless war has been the War on Terror. According to a study by Brown University last year, the cost to America in the first ten years after 9/11 was a staggering $4trn. Trillions more have been spent in Europe and elsewhere. During all this time, there have been just 251 terrorism-related deaths in the developed world and none in the US. Over the same time, tens of thousands have been killed by climate change. According to Munich Re, 30,000 people have been killed in North America alone, between 1980 and 2011 because of weather related incidents.
For more than a decade we have been chasing the wrong demon. The biggest threat to our existence is not the lack of economic growth, nor al-Qaeda. It is the Earth itself. Unless we learn to treat it with respect and start responding to the signals it is sending us, it will consume us all.
Graeme Maxton is a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome