The storm that blew away rationalism
The belief that recent storms were caused by climate change echoes Medieval Europe's superstitions about weather.
After flooding disruption in New York, the Caribbean and Venice over the past few weeks, global warming has acted as a prism through which bad weather events have been interpreted. Now, following his re-election, President Barack Obama has indicated that the US needs to address the threat of global warming.
Hurricane Sandy brought havoc in the Caribbean, especially Haiti, and caused approximately 60 deaths. Then the storm hit the US east coast; New York experienced exceptional floods and at least 40 people lost their lives. Next, Venice in Italy witnessed high flooding on 11 November, when the city’s tide measurements reached their sixth-highest level for 140 years. No one died from these floods in Venice, but – like Haiti and New York – the economic impact was significant.
Global warming was widely blamed for the flooding, yet in all three cases flooding was principally caused by storm surges. In the Caribbean and America, there was an unfortunate convergence of weather systems creating storm surges. As Hurricane Sandy swirled north in the Atlantic and towards land, a wintry storm headed towards it from the West and cold air was blowing south from the Arctic. After the hurricane devastated parts of the Caribbean, it moved towards the north-east of the US, pushing water up the estuaries of New York into the city. Venice’s floods were unconnected to Hurricane Sandy, but were also caused by high winds creating storm surges pushing water through the three inlets between the sea and the Venetian lagoon towards the city. Subsidence over the past century has made Venice more susceptible to storm surges. Nevertheless, after 70 per cent of Venice was under water on 11 November, Italy’s environment minister, Corrado Clini, insisted that global climate change was to blame.
Although storm surges were the cause of the floods in all three locations, global warming was widely identified as the culprit. Of course, we cannot ignore climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established in 2007 that there was a global temperature rise of 0.74 degrees Celsius between 1906 and 2005, which added to global sea levels rising by an average rate of 1.8 millimetres per year from 1961. We need to have an open debate about climate change and its relationship with bad weather events. Some argue that climate change has increased hurricanes and storm surges, while others suggest there is insufficient evidence to prove this link. Whether climate change impacts on the frequency and strength of hurricanes remains uncertain, yet global warming has definitely been deployed as a superstitious narrative to close down discussion.
On 1 November, Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine responded to Hurricane Sandy with the front-cover headline: ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid.’ This title echoes the 1992 US presidential election slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, which developed from Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville and his successful criticism of the sitting president, George HW Bush, for ignoring the economy. The BusinessWeek title was aimed at the two leading candidates in the recent presidential election campaign, Obama and Mitt Romney, who ignored global warming in their three televised debates. ‘The only responsible first step is to put climate change back on the table for discussion’, said BusinessWeek. This implies that after Hurricane Sandy, global warming would haunt President Obama if he stupidly ignored it following his re-election. In his victory speech, Obama spoke of an America ‘threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet’.
This suggests Obama will be more ‘on message’ about global warming during his second term. Why did he decide to speak out on global warming immediately after his re-election, having kept quiet about it during the election campaign? A cynic might suggest that action on global warming is perceived as harming the economy and jobs in the US, and therefore could have been a vote loser; now Obama will not need to seek re-election and can speak out about climate change as much as he likes.
Maybe Obama has understood the wider message that anyone who ignores global warming is either stupid or in denial. ‘Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality’, declared New York governor Andrew M Cuomo after the Sandy flooding. This message castigates anyone who might point out that long before global warming was discussed, hurricanes killed many more people, and the destruction caused in the US by Hurricane Sandy is not unprecedented. To give one example, in 1938 the New England Hurricane killed more than 700 people, including 60 in New York. Yet to suggest that global warming has not made bad weather events worse provokes allegations of climate-change denial or stupidity.
In this sense, global warming can be compared to ancient superstitions. In Medieval Europe, religion governed perceptions of weather events and legends were constructed to understand them. According to a Venetian legend, in 1340 demons blew winds that created a storm surge towards Venice. Then St Mark, St George and St Nicholas stopped the demons by making the sign of a cross and saved the city.
Is global warming the contemporary demon causing storm surges? Today, climate change provides the narrative for understanding the relationship between humanity and nature. In medieval times, critics were treated as heretics, often with deadly consequences. Now critics or those who fail to endorse fears about global warming are labelled stupid and are told to get ‘on message’. This limits debate about the causes of bad weather events and responses.
London, Rotterdam and Venice initiated flood-control barriers before global warming clouded debate; Venice’s barriers should be completed in 2016. In 2005, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which was also widely blamed on global warming, and 1,200 people died due to inadequate flood protection. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has endorsed Obama for his approach to climate change. But Bloomberg has favoured small-scale flood protection measures for New York, including raising subway grates to reduce subway flooding, over barrier systems. Many locations worldwide could benefit from better flood protection. Yet the deployment of global warming to shut out the opinions of anyone who questions this narrative is the biggest barrier we face to defending ourselves from bad weather events.
Dominic Standish is the author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality published by University Press of America. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Visit Dominic’s website here. He lectures for the University of Iowa at its CIMBA campus in the Venice region of Italy, where he has lived since 1997.