Published on 30 Oct 2012

Sandy: America's agony and the 'why' word

Driving some eight hours from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington DC late yesterday, east-side America was a ghost land of lashing rains, tossing trees, and deserted freeways reflecting our headlights in pools of standing water.

Occasionally, vast fifty-foot long trucks would hurtle past us, obliterating all view with clouds of spray and spume. Arriving in the US capital, the streets were abandoned. Not a soul moved as pavement saplings blew at crazy angles and shopping trolleys, torn tyres, and other debris flew about the roads and pavements. Whole neighbourhoods were in darkness. Crossing the wild Potomac required all one’s strength to keep our vehicle from being blown across the carriageway.

But the “power outages”, the shutdown of all public transport systems, all cab movements, all shops and bars, and the government itself, were as nothing compared to Manhattan and the New Jersey foreshore.

My colleague Matt Frei was out in New York late into the night and has seen unimaginable scenes of chaos. His reports will be on Channel 4 News tonight and in his blog – or you can follow him on Twitter @mattfrei.

Here, amid continuing 55mph winds, we are already asking questions. This is the wrong season for hurricanes to hit so far north. What has brought this upon what is – at times, and in some places – the most sophisticated nation on earth?

Has what is still the most energy-consuming country in the world brought this on itself to any extent? Is America – responsible for 25 per cent of all global carbon emissions, where the mother and father of the biggest vehicles are standard public usage – suffering from the effects of climate change to which she, and we, have contributed?

As of now some sixteen people have died. Some 6.5 million Americans are without power. And remember, no power, no water. The US sanitation and water systems have no tanks in the roof. Water is pumped. So there are millions of Americans with dry taps and no lavatory flush.

For the latest updates on Sandy, live from the newsroom and the US, click here

And how vulnerable this nation’s “sophistication” proves. Bloomberg News, based in New York, talks of $6 billion in insurance claims. Nearly 14,000 flights have been cancelled, disrupting air travel across America with knock-ons across the world.

Pfizer, Thomson Reuters, Time Warner, McGraw-Hill are just a few of the global corporations having to postpone key announcements. Wall Street is shut for the second day.

Somehow who runs America becomes a secondary question. Now, surely, the question will be asked: in what condition is the America that is to be run?

The presidential campaign for the vote a week today is suspended. Mr Obama will appear at the White House and perhaps elsewhere to “lead” the recovery. Mr Romney is left to visit an emergency shelter in Ohio – a state less affected than most that it borders.

Climate change, global warming, are issues that have not surfaced in this presidential season. America is not alone in that. But as this vast country wrestles with a catastrophe that has affected some 20 per cent of the USA, and some 60 million of its people, the “why” word must surely assert itself.

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25 reader comments

  1. Angelica Perry says:

    I really like your descriptions here
    Driving some eight hours from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington DC late yesterday, east-side America was a ghost land of lashing rains, tossing trees, and deserted freeways reflecting our headlights in pools of standing water.
    Occasionally, vast fifty-foot long trucks would hurtle past us, obliterating all view with clouds of spray and spume.

    The trouble with asking has America brought this upon itself….is from where some begin to speak in term of Apocalyptic Judgement so I am uneasy about your question.

    There is something about aspects of US culture which similarly is not helpful…like the 25% deposit of Carbon Emissions..like friends who told me they were struggling desperately financially but still drove a Cadilac?…

    But if I recall when I lived in Kansas City for 9 years…the US consciousness on the weather is so different from British….I thought it brought a kind of expansive view?

    A friend in Portland Maine sent me a couple of e.mails yesterday..which reflects this I think
    “This old house has lived through 172 years of hurricanes. I have no boats in the water, so getting ready is not too hard–just seeing that things like porch rockers and hanging baskets are taken care of–and expecting to be without power should be it. Im on top of a hill, so there may be wind, but im well above storm surge……It has hit–wonderful drama–wind sounds like a freight train. Before the sun set, the whitecaps were coming up the bay like a running herd of dappled greys. Beautiful.”
    sincere regards
    and thanks for the best news programme on TV

    Angelica Perry

  2. Y.S. says:

    “Why” does not win votes. They want someone who promises everything.
    Having seen Matt Frei,s programme the other day it seems their industrial cities are in decay. They have the same problems as us, as ask any entrepreneur where to make things and their answer is always China. This leave our inner city and council estate workers without factory jobs.( We cant all be office workers ). They cant take temp jobs as housing benefit is affected so the foreigners takes them.
    Our city centres would be as bad as the US only we have turned our old factories into flats.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Is it possible to export jobs in our restaurants, service stations, design studios, football teams and tourist sights like the Grand Canyon to Indonesia? No!
      We make the most money out of our product supply chains by designing and marketing products assembled elsewhere. Our high value-added tasks require skills not available in China or India either.
      True enough, we have to change and adapt a lot. But we’re very good at that too.

  3. Cynic says:

    You’d think, wouldn’t you. But it doesn’t do to underestimate the power of denial…or vested interests for that matter. The climate deniers are this century’s Big Tobacco as far as I can see.

  4. Philip says:

    Lots of potential scapegoats – God, capitalism, global warming, original sin – but (a) it will almost certainly be unprovable (which won’t stop people trying to find plausible scapegoats which chime with their preconceptions) and (b) it might just be a purely natural phenomenon, like the notorious Great Storm of 1987.

  5. Angelica Perry says:

    PS….I was in KC during The flash Flood of 1977…I was driving from Oak Park Mall….thought it was great fun at first up against The Elements…until..I began to see Cars under water….25 people died and an estimated $100 million of Damage to Properties

  6. anon says:

    Perhaps the reality of this disaster will impact on the politicians as they grapple for victory in this close race.
    . Perhaps Americans will see it as an opportunity to rebuild their affected infrastructures with quality replacements.
    Perhapsthe USA will realise that the massive aid packages that are so often the subject of corruption by the recipients must be distributed fairly or maybe even curtailed as America puts right their own problems..Birth control in the third world would ease demand..But it does not happen.
    With these types of disasters there is much soul searching to be done.
    Perhaps the two parties will be able to reach some agreements over vital aspects of government. , the last four years have not solved the economic problems.
    The timing ,of this tragedy is food for thought.
    There seems to be a vast downward spirralling in so many parts of the world, aid does little to resolve it;Democracy has little meaning for many and the power struggles continue. Perhaps the example of western nations rebuilding from disaster will act as an impetus.. Or will it just be viewed with envy. .

  7. Mary Dunn says:

    Thank you for asking ‘why?’ Jon, at last! That’s the real news. Keep looking and asking.

  8. Ferdinand says:

    Having seen your report from hurricane torn New York you then climb on the global warming bandwagon suggesting perhaps climate change had something to do with it. Why Oh why do you not check the facts about global warming before making these less than erudite suppositions. It lowers you to the level of an ordinary reporter. Please check the facts about so called global warming. You totally spoil your report by that unintelligent positioning.

    1. Cynic says:

      Ferdinand, climate change is not a ‘bandwagon’. It is mainstream science with huge and worrying societal implications across the world.

      There’s a good little article here

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/oct/30/hurricane-sandy-supersized-climate-change

      explaining how the effects of climate change (global warming is only a part of it) have created the conditions under which a storm like Sandy can occur: i.e. Sandy is not a simple and immediate result of climate change (and what is ever simple and direct about climate or weather?), but climate change makes extreme weather events more likely in areas which were previously safer for human habitation. It’s a subtle distinction, but I’m sure you get the point.

      The US droughts are another example of this more complex relationship between a changing climate and its effects; this article’s useful on that subject: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/07/climate-change-drought/

  9. Stefan says:

    Interesting interview last night between Jon Snow and a climate scientist. Linking hurricanes to global warming isn’t scientifically easy nor obvious. Random things sometimes produce freak events. But it may still likely be random. How much damage did Al Gore’s movie do to environmentalism with its simpleton image of hurricanes coming out of smoke stacks? It really annoys me how environmentalists shot the movement in the foot and set things back decades with their dumbing down of everything. Do they really imagine the public is dumb? If you want people to improve their awareness, treat them like intelligent adults.

  10. cassie_fortescue says:

    What sort of car were you driving?

  11. Mardi says:

    Saw your interview with Electricity Rep in US last night and was very disappointed in your tone. Can you remember what you said about the media and the Olympics? Something about how positive commentators were and how it uplifted peoples spirits. I don’t think the people of the Eastern States need to hear about ‘who’s to blame, politics, and what hasn’t been done to prevents all this etc. etc.. The shock and devistation in NJ and NY is enough for them to endure right now. How about some positive media coverage and ‘praise’ [heaven forbid!] to raise their spirits in the hard days to come.

  12. Ferdinand says:

    Cynic – You have exposed the main error in the argument: climate always changes. It has nothing to do with man. There has not been a single scientific paper linking raise CO2 with dangerous global warming. There have only been computer models developed by people with political motives. It surprises me that Jon Snow has been fooled by this, but he is not alone.

    1. Cynic says:

      Ferdinand, I’m afraid you missed my point completely. What on earth have you been reading that has told you there’s no scientific evidence of the role of CO2? You, and anyone likely to believe you, ought to look at this: http://www.acrim.com/%5C/Reference%20Files/CLIMATECHANGE%202001%20-%20The%20Scientific%20Basis.pdf
      You don’t have to look beyond the first couple of pages to see the graphs, which tell a pretty obvious story.
      Scientific modelling is the only sensible way of taking current data and attempting to project into the future.

  13. Ferdinand says:

    Cynic – Those are based on ten year old flawed computer models. We were all fooled by those figures.We now know they were wrong because the figure’s interpretation was political and not scientific. You will know that a logarithmic always flattens. With CO2 it flattens at about 400ppm. So beyond that however much CO2 is produce no more heating will take place.

  14. Cynic says:

    It sounds to me as if you (or whatever conspiracy theory you’ve been reading) have conflated the representation of a process with the process itself. Why would a chemical and atmospheric process simply cease at this point? Are you saying there’s some kind of CO2 saturation? This is clearly incorrect – look at Venus. Or that the atmosphere cannot warm any further? Ditto, to keep it simple.

    If you’re going to make statements about a warming effect plateau at 400pm I’d like a reference, please. A peer-reviewed, non-fossil-fuel-industry funded citation.

    The IPCC still seem to think that the figures are worth bothering with: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ch2s2-3.html, and there’s also no sign of a collective sigh of relief from Arctic scientists in this article: http://researchmatters.noaa.gov/news/Pages/arcticCO2.aspx

    1. Ferdinand says:

      Just draw a logarithmic curve from zero ppm and you will see that at about 400ppm there is virtually no increase. It is not a ceiling but there is no concern at that level of CO2. By the way if you think the IPCC is giving you sound information then you need to look at independent scientists’ not government political responses. e.g Lindzen, Soon, etc. The IPCC stands for Inter Governmental policy on Climate Change.i.e it is a political computer model. When the first IPCC report was produced the contributing scientists said human activity had NO DISCERNIBLE effect on climate. But Ben Santer the left wing scientist altered the report to there WAS A DISCERNIBLE effect on climate change. The whole thing is political and it will take a lot to halt it as too many people are making fortunes out of the fraud. Most of us have been fooled .

  15. Cynic says:

    Well one of the scientists you mention has certainly made some money out of opposing global warming theories: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/28/climate-change-sceptic-willie-soon. You’re like a smoker who chose to trust the tobacco companies rather than listen to Richard Doll.

    You still haven’t given me a citation yet that backs up your argument. The citations for the scientists you mention are clouded by money from the oil industry and the climate denial lobby, as well as by doubts on some of the data (in Lindzen’s case, admitted by the man himself). Many climate scientists, more in sorrow than in anger it seems, see Lindzen’s work as flawed and playing to wishful thinking.

    And your characterization of pro-global-warming as ‘political’ (so that anyone who disagrees is ‘not political’) is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty.

  16. Ferdinand says:

    Cynic –
    Oh dear please check the facts and not quote newspaper articles. They have agendas. I try to go back to the original research and in most cases it is available. Just look up Lindzen or Robert Carter (Australian). You will see all the basic research findings unclouded by politics. it has taken me several years to dig out the true facts.

  17. Cynic says:

    So, again, what are your exact citations, if you’ve gone back to the original research? I really want to know – and I want to know why you think only one side has an agenda, and what you think that agenda is. All I’ve found so far are studies which are considered flawed for one reason or another. Science is not perfect, I know, but I’m interested in why you trust one scientist over another. You seem to treat any meta-level report deriving from the opinions of a lot of climate scientists as ‘political’, yet (and you have not yet responded to my points on this) you treat scientists who have taken money from the oil industry and similar vested interests as more trustworthy.

    The newspaper citations are just a shorthand: I’m trying to keep my responses accessible to anyone else who might be reading as well as the two of us (some hope maybe!), because I think it’s really, really important to shine some clear light on this. I’m all for questioning (hence my name!) and as the parent of two small children I would dearly love to think all these global-warming studies are wrong, but you have yet to give me anything which makes me more likely to believe what you say than what the Geological Society of London says (for instance).

    Lindzen is an interesting case, because he’s questioning the assumptions/inputs of the conventional climate models in relation to particular feedback loops – so in effect, although he is saying that the models and studies have exaggerated the warming effect, he is accepting climate *change* as a valid theory, whether he’ll admit it or not – because the amount of extra moisture held in the atmosphere as a result of increased CO2 cannot help but change the climate in various ways.

    This is one of the reasons I much prefer to talk about ‘climate change’ rather than ‘global warming’; for eaxmple it’s pretty clear that in some cases the warming of some areas could lead to substantial chilling in others (disruption of the Gulf Stream being one possibility, which would have a substantial cooling effect on Europe), and that CO2 is having effects, and that the effects need to be monitored and responded to.

    You ask me to look at Carter. In the spirit of providing an accessible counter-argument, this is a nicely-written review representing what I found: http://sciblogs.co.nz/hot-topic/2011/04/29/climate-the-counter-consensus/ – is this senior scientist reviewer simply yet another patsy for the IPCC as far as you’re concerned?

    And, especially in relation to Carter, what I’m really interested in understanding is *why* you trust a particular single scientist over another particular scientist. *Why* do you accept what Carter says, for instance? What makes him inherently more likely to have the ‘right’ answer (if such a thing exists in a scientific sense) than someone else? Does the fact that he has received regular payments from The Heartland Institute not give you pause? My analogy with the tobacco industry lobby is pertinent once again, since in this case it’s no mere analogy, but a repeat of the kinds of activities this institute undertook for Philip Morris in the 1990s.

    Your language is all about not trusting the official authorities; but, in essence, *why* do you distrust them? It seems from what you’ve said that you consider them to be vested interests. You’ve named one IPCC scientist as a culprit and labelled him ‘left-wing’. On what basis have you decided this man’s politics? Is it by extension ‘left-wing’ to believe all of the relevant global and national scientific bodies and their associated research?

    And if you’re concerned about vested interests, surely you should be equally concerned about funding from vested interests such as the oil industry and oil-industry-funded think tanks like the Heartland Institute? I’d very much like you to explain your position on that.

  18. Ferdinand says:

    cynic. _ You have found exactly the type of scientist about which you have to be very sceptical. He is funded by the state so is unlikely to question government positions on climate. One doesn’t question one’s paymaster. Of course many scientists are state funded (taxpayer funded) and therefor those who are sceptical and almost universally independent have a harder time to profess their views. They have to sell their skills and so have to be right. Also the IPCC is funded by states, it is not independent. I don’t blame it for promulgating a line which ensures its continued funding but it must not claim it speaks the truth, only that it puts over a particular science. Friends of mine who are or were scientists completely distrust the IPCC for its false reporting. They don’t do this out of malice but because the IPCC does not produce evidence from scientists who use, strictly, the scientific method, and specifically often avoid peer review. No science is fixed but the IPCC will tell you otherwise

  19. Cynic says:

    Hey, what happened to my reply? Anyway, in brief, anyone reading the above posts should seriously question ‘Ferdinand”s logic and motives: he claims to distrust the IPCC and scientists who work with/for it because it’s a big organization and there are vested interests in particular results, yet apparently puts total faith in scientists who are funded by the very industries which benefit from climate change denial. This suggests to me either wishful thinking on his part, and/or a deep pre-existing bias (notice that ‘left-wing’ is used pejoratively of a particular scientist, and ‘Ferdinand’ doesn’t respond to my request to back that up, and that he also fails to respond properly to the issue of funding by conservative think tanks).

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