01.12.2012 Climate Change

Wings of Change

Superstorm Sandy makes the imperative for change even stronger, says Adrian Glamorgan

Perhaps an Amazon Beauty butterfly opened its wings, and the tipping point ever so slightly overbalanced. Or it was the warming seas. From whisper to tropical wave in the Caribbean, south of Jamaica, the storm built up, became hurricane category 1, and directly hit near the capital Kingston, snapped off trees and power lines, threw aside shanty houses, hurled the roofs off most buildings in the east, sent a thousand people running to shelters, left 70% of homes on the island without power, closed international airports, damaged banana crops, stranded fishing folk, and diverted luxury cruises. The damage to Jamaica in just a few hours is estimated to have been about $55 million.

The hurricane moved north. In its path... Haiti, still ailing from its 2010 earthquake. "The whole south of the country is underwater," explained the Haitian Prime Minister. Two hundred thousand quickly made homeless, 52 killed, towns and the capital flooded, leading to at least 700,000 falling ill with cholera. Crops failed in a country with tenuous food security. A million people in Haiti now face food insecurity.

Next door, in the Dominican Republic, there was flooding and several thousand people were evacuated, but their better infrastructure and governance stood them in better stead.

Crossing the notably warmer seas of the Caribbean, Hurricane Sandy strengthened into category 2, made landfall over Cuba's second largest city, brought waves up to nine metres and a two metre storm surge along the coast. Fifty five thousand people had evacuated, more than a 132,000 homes were damaged, destroyed, or left roofless. Losses were estimated to be around $80m just for the Santiago de Cuba province alone.

Ironically, although the hurricane passed over the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, (yes, the American base in Cuba where people are detained and tortured without being told with what crimes they are charged), the damage was minimal.

So northward Hurricane Sandy went, weakening in force but still downing power and mobile phone services in the Bahamas, and even extending its influence to faraway Bermuda. But only as it approached continental USA as a superstorm did most of the world become aware if it.

Twenty four American states felt Hurricane Sandy's force, with thousands of homes flattened, millions without electricity, a hundred or so killed, travel brought to a halt, schools closed, drowning parts of the subway, and closing the New York stock exchange for two days. What fury was left in the storm was thrown into heavy snowfalls in the north-east and bad weather into Canada, cutting off electricity for at least 60,000 homes from Ontario through Quebec to Nova Scotia.

In the United States alone, the cost is guessed to be $50 billion, making it one of the most expensive 'natural' disasters in its history. But did humanity have a hand in this storm? Environmentalists were not quick to raise climate change. It does not help the cause to be opportunist about terrible suffering. But increasing temperature is increasing the energy - and therefore the impacts - within the climate system.

All the same, The Day After Tomorrow kept popping up in everyday conversation. This was not cinema or CGI. The US House Committee on Energy and Commerce considered a request for a special session on climate change and Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg of New York said it straight out, climate change, saying Barack Obama should be elected a second term because he would do something about it, and Romney denied it existed at all. While the presidential debates (for the first time in a quarter of century) had been silent on global warming, after being elected Obama found his courage. No single extreme weather event could be linked to climate change, he acknowledged, but we all know global temperatures are rising faster than predicted a decade ago; that the Arctic ice is melting much faster than predicted five years ago, and that there have been "an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events" in the US and the world generally. Obama admitted that his administration hadn't done as much as it should have in the first term, but the second term would bring greater attention.

So it seems likely the Amazon Beauty Butterfly's flapping wings, and chaos theory, didn't do this hurricane on its own. Nature got some underhand help. It arose from 200 years of burning coal and, in recent years, India and China joining the carbon dioxide binge so as to enrich the standard of living for a third of humanity. Our growing population may be a factor in creating extreme weather events like superstorms, but only when it's linked to our consumption and carbon emissions. We have built a civilisation that needs to burn ancient sunlight, trapped in fossil fuels, to keep ourselves in airconditioned consumption. It hasn't learned to 'dematerialise' production or consumption, and the consequences will be in our face for some time to come.

The footage focused on stripped roller coasters and marooned yachts in north-eastern USA, but it was the poor of the US, including the low income neighbourhoods of New York, who paid and continue to pay the price. But even they overshadow the poor of the Caribbean, who have paid the highest price with their lives and the storm's legacy, and yet are least noticed.

The truth of climate change is that it will be the poorest of the world who are being hit and will be hit hardest. Climate justice is the president of Paulau making a submission to the International Court of Justice seeking an opinion on whether climate change involves richer nations harming others beyond their own boundaries. It is former Irish President Mary Robinson arguing that climate change undermines individual rights to essentials like food, water and health.

In the coming federal election, will the old parties talk about the need to act on climate change? At the moment we have an energy policy that promotes selling coal, at a time that the Chinese are deftly transitioning to renewable energies. We have ponderous circumlocutions by others about whether the hottest decade on record (each year we make a new one) has anything to do with global warming.

Meanwhile 858,000 homes in Australia are now fitted with solar PV systems. The Australian Clean Energy Regulator has predicted that, at current uptake levels, the millionth property will be fitted with solar photovoltaics during June 2013, only weeks before the next federal election is likely to be called.

In April, the Clean Energy Council identified the top solar postcodes. Their findings may surprise. Rural Dubbo in NSW is Australia's solar capital (28% of homes). Caloundra, in the urban sprawl of the Sunshine Coast, tops Queensland (27%). Pinjarra leads Western Australia (25%). Tourist icon Victor Harbour tops South Australia (25%). Rural Echuca and Wodonga lead Victoria (13%).

In South Australia, the good people have passed the government's limited targets for renewable energy through wind farming, and now they want to build Australia's first Solar Thermal Power Plant. That's a way of providing baseload energy, similar to the one in Spain, where a heliostat tower receives concentrated sunlight and heats molten salt to over 500 degrees Celsius, where it is stored at 98% thermal efficiency, to pump a steam generator.

But there's more. Much more. Geothermals, ocean thermal, wave power, tidal power, artificial photosynthesis, lighter better batteries storing for longer, biofuels that don't divert food from the poor. It's there, happening inside labs and in light industrial areas and on rooftops near you.

We are on the edge of a precipice. Superstorms and extended bushfire seasons, drying climates, and more to come. Yet just as surely we have the means to change and remake the world as we know it, into a cleaner, greener, more beautiful and fairer place. But change won't happen on its own. Change comes from citizens growing in scientific literacy, engaging with informed national conversation and leading their laggard members of parliament, to bring on the change. Maybe the next extreme weather event will push the late adapters along a little bit further. But the poor of the earth can't wait a second longer, or afford to pay the price each storm surge might send their way tonight.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism