On this day in 1938. As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities observes:
New Englanders woke on the 21st and went about their weekday routines. At least they did until the storm broke in mid-afternoon. Within minutes, the hurricane leveled virtually everything in its path. The whirling, shrieking winds and rushing waters took more than 600 lives and caused damage estimated between $6-12 billion in today’s dollars. Technology now provides enough warning to evacuate vulnerable areas, so a storm of similar magnitude might take fewer lives today. But the pace of development along the coast means that property and environmental damage would undoubtedly be many times greater.
I think some of the leaders of the movement to address global warming did our cause a disservice by describing the recent Hurricane Irene, and other recent global extreme weather, as a product of global warming. Bill McKibben of 350.org in The Daily Beast on 25 August, for example:
Remember—this year has already seen more billion-dollar weather-related disasters than any year in U.S. history. Last year was the warmest ever recorded on planet Earth. Arctic sea ice is near all-time record lows. Record floods from Pakistan to Queensland to the Mississippi basin; record drought from the steppes of Russia to the plains of Texas. Just about the only trauma we haven’t had are hurricanes plowing into the U.S., but that’s just luck—last year was a big storm year, but they all veered out to sea. This year we’re already on letter I—which in a normal year we don’t get to until well into October. Every kind of natural system is amped up, holding more power—about ¾ of a watt extra energy per square meter of the Earth’s surface, thanks to the carbon we’ve poured into the atmosphere. This is what climate change looks like in its early stages.
This is a weak argument. It is not clear that global warming causes specific weather events. As McKibben himself noted earlier in the piece, the 1938 storm was a monster. And of course, in point of fact, Irene did not cause the predicted devastation, although Vermont and other areas suffered major flooding.
A better argument is that nature dwarfs human capacity, and giant storms are reminders of this truth. The consequences of global warming are unpredictable, but include the potential collapse of our civilization and suffering on a biblical scale. Prudence dictates we should work to minimize this risk. It is reckless simply to hope for the best. But there have been big storms before.