Sandy in Context

Areas along the Belt Parkway near the Verrazano Bridge in Gravesend Bay, getting breached at 9 a.m. Monday morning, nearly 12 hours before Hurricane Sandy’s more destructive evening surge, Oct 29, 2012. Photo by Todd Maisel, courtesy of The New York Daily News.

The following Op-Ed was published, after I received an invitation to write it on Halloween, in the Friday, November 2, 2012, edition of The New York Daily News. 

I remember reading Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” in high school during the 1980s, a little more than a decade after it came out. Toffler’s idea was that chronic stress had become the baseline normal for an entire generation. He said this stress was due to the accelerated pace of change in a “super-industrial society.”

Today, Toffler’s ideas seem almost quaint. But they are vital to understanding how the media, the political world and science itself have largely left reason behind when it comes to climate change.

Weather, which used to be experienced either on one’s head or via newspapers, today is delivered to ever-sharper screens at an ever-increasing pace and an ever-growing level of repetition. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which killed 695 people (in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana) wasn’t captured on HD video – and as far as most people were concerned, it might as well have never happened.

On the other hand, the Joplin Tornado of 2011, which killed 158 people, was captured on video and seen by millions of people. The Joplin Tornado, less lethal than the Tri-State, was effectively used by the promoters of manmade climate change – even though by comparing these two tragedies, the climate change one observes is moving in a positive direction. That’s how powerful video is. When people see footage of a storm that happened yesterday, it has a visceral effect that nothing else can duplicate.

This is where Toffler was prescient. The endless loop of destruction is what people know best today.

Hurricanes are another case in point. People’s consciousness has been saturated with images of hurricanes for at least 25 years. Meanwhile, horrific hurricanes have been killing people on U.S. shores since the founding of the Republic. The deadliest of these, the Great Galveston Hurricane, which occurred in 1900 and killed 8,000, predates the start of manmade climate change (which is conventionally given as the end of World War II) by a good four decades.

Quick, pop quiz! 1) When was the last major (category 3 or above) hurricane to make landfall in the U.S? 2) What is the longest period that the U.S. has ever gone through without a major hurricane making landfall?

Answers: 1) Wilma, Oct. 24, 2005; 2) The current stretch, which is seven years and nine days. Sandy, for all the destruction it has caused, was a post-tropical cyclone by the time it hit.

All this is just a piece of the record of a single nation. Super-powerful ocean storms have been killing people the world over throughout recorded history.

One of the most chilling of these historic ocean storms was the Grote Mandrënke, or Great Drowner of Men. A gale that blew in from the North Sea on Jan. 16, 1362, Grote Mandrënke reshaped the coast of much of what is now Germany and killed at least 25,000 (some say 100,000). A previous storm that took place on the same date in 1219 killed 36,000 and shaped much of the coast of what is now the Netherlands.

That is what ocean storms do. They lash coastlines , pushing sand it has no weight, battering infrastructure, drowning people. The world is big – bigger than most people give it credit for – and it has seen a lot more destructive weather events than most people would wish to believe.

Bear this in mind, though: Not a single iteration of United Nations climate documents, reports the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has indicated that extreme climate events have increased during the past half-century. Scientists have said they should, or will, or might, but the panel hasn’t yet said that they have. In the meantime, the media make hay out of climate change, just as they have for more than a century.

Ambler is the author of “Don’t Sell Your Coat: Surprising Truths About Climate Change.” He lives in Rhode Island.

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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