Notes from the Editors

Monthly Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Notes from the Editors


As we write these notes at the beginning of November climate change is once again in the headlines in the United States and around the world. This is because of the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy, not only on islands in the Caribbean, but also on the northeastern United States and particularly New York and New Jersey, with the impact of the storm dramatized by the damage to New York City. Coincidentally almost twenty-five years ago it was a heat wave experienced in New York, coinciding with climatologist James Hansen's famous testimony to Congress, that first made global warming a public issue, and increasingly an international one with the formation that year of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Whether Hurricane Sandy's destruction in New York and New Jersey will lead to a similar elevation of climate change as a public issue this time around remains to be seen.

That climate change was a factor, mixing with natural variability, in the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy is not in doubt. According to Mark Fischetti, in "Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?" (Scientific American blog, October 30, 2012, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/10/30/ did-climate-change-cause-hurricane-sandy/), one crucial connection between Hurricane Sandy and climate change is associated with the cold jet stream moving south and adding energy to the atmosphere and Sandy, further expanding the storm. The atmospheric pattern (known as a "blocking high") that sent the jet stream south can be traced to record Arctic sea ice melts in the summer and the effect this had on the North Atlantic Oscillation. In other words, climate change is believed to have had a large and fairly direct effect in increasing the severity of Sandy when it hit the Northeast and in causing its track to take a very unusual turn to the west directly into New Jersey. (Those interested in the scientific details might want to see Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog, http://wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum-2283.)

But there are numerous other aspects of climate change involved as well, since global warming alters the baseline for storms, amping up the underlying factors by warming the oceans and creating more energy for storms, while also warming the atmosphere so that it holds more moisture, which is drawn into storms.

Scientists are more and more concerned about extreme weather resulting from climate change. The imprint of climate change is increasingly evident in heat waves, droughts, storms, and floods. James Hansen wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on August 3, 2012 (entitled "Climate Change is Here - And Worse than We Thought") in which he stated emphatically that the deadly European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, and the devastating droughts in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 could all be attributed to climate change. Hansen stated that "the odds that natural variability created these extremes" were "minuscule."

The advent of extreme weather, then, may be our last chance to wake up and realize that accelerated social change must necessarily occur if the future of humanity is to be secured, involving the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels, and a transcendence of the current socioeconomic regime (the subject of this month's ROM, "The Planetary Emergency," by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark).

In the future we are likely to look back at the decades that were wasted as capitalism with its accumulation dynamic and its heavy reliance on fossil fuels blocked all serious attempts to deal with the overall environmental problem, and suppressed or systematically filtered out the warnings of science. …

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