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Superstorm Sandy resurrects conversation on climate change

Supporters of 350.org protested 'climate silence' in Times Square days before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. (Source: 350.org) Supporters of 350.org protested 'climate silence' in Times Square days before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. (Source: 350.org)

(RNN) - Although politics has largely been pushed aside as the East Coast deals with the effects of Superstorm Sandy, a controversial topic is likely to make its way back into the national discourse: climate change.

Two days before Sandy hit New York City, members of environmental group 350.org, a group that works to build awareness and find solutions to climate change, held up a giant banner in the middle of Times Square that read: "End climate silence."

According to 350.org spokesman, Daniel Kessler, the protest was in response to the lack of discussion on climate change during the presidential debates.

"The four moderators and the two candidates never brought it up. But people are talking about it," Kessler said.

Kessler pointed to the fact that 3,215 high-temperature records were broken or tied during the month of June and May was the warmest month on record for the Northern Hemisphere as evidence that people are feeling the effects of climate change - even if it's not mentioned in political advertisements and talking head panels.

"When people poke their head out the window, they see something funny is going on," Kessler said. "And they can't quite figure out why the politicians won't talk about it. That's what 'climate silence' is."

Climate change's impact on Superstorm Sandy

Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says that climate change is likely a contributing factor to Superstorm Sandy.

Trenberth explains that climate change has had a direct impact on higher sea temperatures, making them one degree warmer and 4 percent higher than they were before the 1970s.

"This hurricane is twice the size of a normal one, four times the area, and able to cause eight times the damage," Trenberth said, explaining that warmer air and increased moisture causes more precipitation that makes the storm stronger.

"With high sea temperatures and more rainfall, there's more fuel for the storm, making for a more intense storm and a greater risk of flooding," Trenberth said.

"When that gets caught up in the storm, there's sort of a double down effect. Not only is there more moisture to produce more rain, but it makes the storm more intense," he added.

Trenberth says that there is 40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there was during pre-industrial times and that most of that has occurred since 1970. The gases can accumulate and lead to more intense heat waves, as well as more wildfires, like those that raged in the southwest during the summer.

But it can also accumulate in the ocean.

"As a result, the oceans are warmer and the air above the oceans is warmer in moisture and that proves fuel for all storms," Trenberth said.

Businesses reacting to heavy cost of climate change

It's not only activists and scientists who are warning about the dangers of climate change -insurance companies are, too.

On Oct. 17, Munich Re, a "reinsurance" company - a company that insures insurance companies - put out a study that analyzes the costs of extreme and severe weather.

"North America has been the most affected by weather-related extreme events in recent decades," said a press release for the Munich Re study.

The study claims that between 1980 and 2011, the costs of extreme weather have exceeded $1 trillion and claimed more than 30,000 lives - and climate change is partly to blame.

"Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity," the press release said. "The view that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense in various regions due to global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings."

Different styles of solutions

Kessler, of 350.org, said that the reason climate change has been a non-factor this election season is because of the fossil fuel industry's influence on politicians.

"The fossil fuel industry has more money than any business in the history of money. And they have a lot of influence and they flex their muscle in every possible occasion," Kessler said. "So they largely bought our congress to stop any policy that could actually do something to get us off of fossil fuel and do something about climate change."

On Nov. 7, 350.org will embark on an 18-city U.S. tour to help build more awareness about the fossil fuel industry's influence on government, which has been outlined in a Rolling Stone article by 350.org founder, Bill McKibben.

"The first order of business is to educate people on how much influence the fossil fuel industry has on government and try to lessen it," Kessler said.

Trenberth does not weigh in on the political reasons for climate change, but he does say there are two major things that must be done to slow climate change, but they might not be popular.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be reduced, and that means cutting down on fossil fuels. Trenberth says this could be helped in part by implementing carbon taxes, such as cap and trade - something politicians try to avoid talking about.

The second thing, according to Trenberth, is to recognize that climate change is already with us and is having massive, costly effects, including wildfires, droughts, and extreme storms like Sandy.

"Recognizing that this is already happening means that we should be planning for it better and trying to deal with it in a more logical fashion than simply suffering the consequences," Trenberth said.

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