Monday October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard. As it moved inland it hit two winter weather systems creating what has been called a hybrid monster storm. As of November 3rd over 113 deaths can be attributed to Sandy on the US mainland, mostly in New York. Tropical storm force winds were seen over the 800 mile wind and rain path resulting in fatalities in states as far west as West Virginia, as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as North Carolina. Many are raising the question of the relationship of this mega-storm to global warming.
Josh Glasser studies the impact of climate change on public health, human security and disaster recovery at Harvard’s School of Public Health. When discussing the topic, he turns to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the leading international body, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for assessment of what is happening in climate change. The IPCC is a body that reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.
According to Glasser, “Hurricanes have always happened, but global warming will be like accelerant on a fire.” He explains that there is “consensus that global warming will most affect the ‘hydro-cycle.’” The hydrological cycle, or water cycle, is the continuous movement of water on, above and below the Earth’s surface. Water molecules move from one reservoir to another: from ocean water to the atmosphere, by evaporation and cloud formation; to condensation and precipitation as rain or solidifying to ice.
The common instrument of change in the cycle is heat exchange. And that is where global warming becomes involved. As described by Dr. Mey Akashah, the capacity of the atmosphere to hold larger cloud structures for longer amounts of time plays a part in this change. Glasser agrees that there will be “more intense and frequent heat waves, floods, droughts and severe storms.”
Another impact of global warming is rising sea level. “Sea level rising is a total wild card. It complicates planning and makes storm surge worse,” he says. One cause of sea level rising is melting of the ice caps. However there is another that we don’t usually think about. Imagine a pot of water. As it heats, the water expands and actually rises in the pot. Now imagine the volume of water in the ocean, as it heats, it expands and rises.
Many countries are feeling the effect of the ocean water’s expansion now. Some feel that the high storm surge during Hurricane Sandy was caused by this phenomenon. Glasser has seen first hand, as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam and later Bengladesh, the impact of rising sea levels on people. His interests include the link of climate change with human security, the impact of humanitarian practices, the importance of disaster recovery, adaptation planning and risk reduction. “Many human societies have developed over time to adapt and conform to the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. You see it in land use, housing, infrastructure, health care, recreation, voluntary migration patterns and so on.” That adaptation keeps them safe in sometimes very difficult situations. But when there are more frequent, intense disasters, especially in places with limited resources, people are put at higher risk. Environmental migrations are estimated by year 2050 to range between 50 million and 1 billion people.
“People have always been mobile, but the numbers are rising fast. “There are now more environmental migrants than refugees in the world. What’s more sea level rising and extreme events are likely to displace tens of millions in coming the coming decades,” Glasser adds.
How does climate change impact vulnerable populations? Glasser explains that climate change undermines health in many ways. It “…tears at the fabric of society–food production, accessing healthcare, the mental toll of disaster. These impact not only human security, the ability to obtain needed resources on an individual level, but populations as a whole are affected.”
As has been seen with both Hurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Sandy, when important infrastructures are damaged, the effect can be devastating. Glasser notes, “If the hospital or clinic is flooded out, no one is getting treated for any condition…climate-sensitive or otherwise. Imagine being an expectant mom, giving birth at home just as the monsoon floods come through.”
Glasser continues, “People the world over have adapted communities to their current environmental conditions. Homes, agriculture, urban structure, health care, recreation, etc., are all tied to the status quo. The crops selected, building materials, diseases to prepare for, even holidays and cultural festivals–all of it is related to the natural environment. Too rapid change is a problem for all but especially a problem when the government is weak, or resources are rare compounding the environmental problems.”
Some suggest that people just move from vulnerable areas. Often the most vulnerable “the very young and the very old, disabled, minorities” and the other poor are in harms way. “Cheap land is also the most marginal…living there is not always a choice,” Glasser point out.
Additionally, there is little research on the reasons for people moving. Likewise, the area of human rights is underdeveloped. “On the individual level promoting choice, autonomy and flexibility and freedom are important. But on population level, it may be hazardous if too many people move, or if too many people stay,” Glasser states. These conflicting perspectives in human rights were apparent during Hurricane Sandy. Governor Christie of New Jersey “essentially said those who stayed in Atlantic City were forfeiting all sorts of rights to protection. Justifiably from the perspective of risk to first responders–but for many, there may not have been a realistic choice to leave. There is a right to move but also a right to stay put,” Glasser explains.
There are no easy answers to these issues. Global warming is likely to impact human well-being in profound ways. Glasser sums it up, “All of this makes climate change a very sobering and scary possibility, I think.”