In the year since Sandy, scientists grow more certain on reality of climate change

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So in some ways life seems to be more or less back to normal in the region that was slammed by super storm Sandy a year ago. But in other ways things may never be the same. That’s because Sandy was widely seen as a wake-up call to the clear and present dangers of climate change. In the days and months after the storm politicians from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to President Obama used the storm to renew their calls for national action on climate change. A year later the specific role of climate change in Sandy’s $60 billion dollars in damage is still being debated. But Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein says in general climate science is clearer than ever.

Seth Borenstein: Well, climate change was one of many factors in Sandy, and the one and most obvious factor that scientists point to is sea level rise. So much of the damage was water flooding, and you have essentially in New York the sea levels are about a foot higher than they were a century earlier. And about two-thirds of that they say they can attribute directly to man-made global warming. With that extra foot of flooding and two-thirds of which can be attributed to climate change according to scientists, they’re saying when they looked at maps, that’s 50,000 people whose homes were flooded, that would not have been flooded.

Werman: Are there still people out there saying, ‘No, climate change had very little to do with Sandy?’

Borenstein: There are deniers out there on that, just like there are deniers on climate change, just like there are deniers that the Earth is round.

Werman: OK. As much as we knew a year ago about climate change, climate science as you know is moving very fast. So what are the biggest things we know now about climate change, or at least are more certain about now, than we were a year ago?

Borenstein: Well, actually we’re just more certain period. That’s one big thing. The intergovernmental panel on climate change just a month ago upgraded from the previous report their level of certainty. It’s essentially saying they’re 95 percent certain. And while to some people 95 percent certain doesn’t sound like an awful lot of certainty, in the world of science you know very few things, if any, are a hundred percent certain. I talked to more than a dozen scientists who tried to 95 percent certainty into context, and they said it’s about the same level of certainty as they have that cigarette smoking kills. So, that’s one big thing. They’re also more certain that we are seeing it in action now. This is not something in the future. We’re seeing it in action now. In terms of the general sense among the scientists, there’s just very little doubt among mainstream climate scientists. But you always have outliers, as you have in almost any scientific field.

Werman: So since last fall I understand there’s been a lot of research into whether the bizarre conditions that caused Sandy to combine with that other storm and then barrel into the coast, how that might be more likely as the world warms more.

Borenstein: Yes. The other factor in Sandy with climate change is one that’s sort of the newest breaking science that’s been going on for about a year and a half, and that’s the changes in the jet stream, or the perceived changes in the jet stream. Their theory is that because of the reduced Arctic sea ice, we are seeing a jet stream that is slower. It is meandering more, dipping more. And that created, they say, the blocking systems that steered Sandy in this case directly in this due east to west turn that it made into New Jersey. That turn is a one in seven hundred year turn according to studies that happen later. And they’re saying this was an unusual situation set up because of the changes in the jet stream. That even has been talked about with the big winter storms we saw last February, that those may have had a connection to the jet stream. Other scientists, mainstream scientists who’ve talked about climate change for a long time don’t buy this. So this is something that, if anything, it’s gotten a little muddier in the last few months.

Werman: Seth Borenstein, climate reporter with the Associated Press. Thanks for your time.

Borenstein: My pleasure.