PennFuture Facts: Mother Nature said HA!

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Read "A Bear in the Woods," PennFuture's not-just-for-attorneys environmental law blog.

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Vol. 14, No. 21 — November 8, 2012 
Mother Nature said HA!

Just two weeks ago, the environmental community (including PennFuture) was lamenting the absence of any discussion of climate change in the presidential and vice presidential debates. And once the debates were over, most believed there was little hope a discussion on global warming would be part of this election cycle. Instead, the candidates would return to the familiar themes and issues they had staked out early on.

But then, Mother Nature said, "HA!" With one giant roundhouse punch, Hurricane Sandy shattered the silence. The massive storm slammed into the East Coast and morphed into a huge storm system, killing more than 100 people in the United States and hundreds more in the Caribbean. More than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power in the U.S.

Along with the death and destruction from which it will take years to recover, Hurricane Sandy grabbed the nation's attention, and put the issue of climate change on the table.

With a nine-foot storm surge that engulfed major portions of New York City, Hurricane Sandy left a path of destruction that will take years and billions of dollars to fix. The fabled New York subway system, tunnels into Manhattan, and highways on either side of the island were under water for days. The floods extended throughout the city, including the Manhattan waterfront and the financial district, neighborhoods like Red Hook in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens, and coastal areas on Staten Island. Entire communities and neighborhoods were lost, including at least 111 homes in Breezy Point on the Rockaways, which burned down while firefighters could only watch.

In New Jersey, the devastation was, if anything, worse. Shoreline was destroyed, and the famed Atlantic City boardwalk was shredded. Town after town was flooded from two sides, the Atlantic storm surge on the east, and the rivers to their west. A tour of the Atlantic coast showed mile after mile of flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets, and homes and businesses on fire.

West Virginia was buried in heavy wet snow that snapped trees and power lines and made travel impossible. Rivers, roads, and railways flooded throughout New England. In North Carolina, the HMS Bounty sunk off of Cape Hatteras. And more than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians lost power — the largest power outage our state has ever seen.

This "100-year storm" was the second such storm to hit New York City and the east; 14 months ago, Hurricane Irene caused similar widespread damage. And as political leaders and voters alike began connecting the dots on this and other extreme weather, they began calling for discussion of, and action on, climate change. Governors, mayors, county, and city leaders alike seemed to realize that our hubris about being able to conquer anything nature throws at us — and engineer around it — was misguided. They realized that our head-in-the-sand approach was not making climate change go away; it was simply making the problem worse, the ultimate financial cost greater, and loss of life and property graver.

The loudest calls for action on climate change came from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg:

"In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods — something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable. 

"Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week's devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

And with that, Bloomberg decided to endorse a presidential candidate — something he had vowed not to do. But Hurricane Sandy changed all that. It compelled him to act.

We hope all elected leaders — and all citizens — take Mayor Bloomberg's words to heart. The wake-up call Mother Nature gave us in the past two weeks should move all of us to action. It should make us realize that we can no longer ignore our changing climate, nor can we cling to the idea that technology will solve it. It's time to act.


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