By Michele S. Byers
How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?
When Bob Dylan wrote that line in “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962, he was asking about peace, war and freedom.
In the wake of Super Storm Sandy, we can ask the same question about climate change. As a society, we’ve been turning our heads for decades and pretending not to see.
At this point, one would have to willfully miss the intensifying cycle of extreme weather: hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts. Each passing year, it seems, breaks old records for lives lost and property damaged.
One of New Jersey’s top ecologists, Dr. Emile DeVito of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, sounded the alarm almost 20 years ago. In a 1993 column, he discussed the increasing unpredictability of weather due to the greenhouse effect, which heats the Earth’s atmosphere – and the pundits who would deny it:
“A seldom-discussed prediction is global warming’s uneveness. There will be tremendous variation, with some places cold and others hot, setting up conditions for violent storms.
“Can we attribute the ‘altogether too wet or altogether too dry, depending on where you were’ summer of 1993 to jet streams and other natural phenomena? Or is our appetite for gasoline to blame for massive flooding? When will we factor billions in emergency money into the yearly budget, since the unprecedented global anomalies of heat, drought, cold and flooding of the past decade are almost certainly attributable to human alterations of the atmosphere?
“More studies? Sure, we can wait for the statisticians to dot every ‘i.’ Then they’ll confidently announce proof of the correlation between oceanfront property in Piscataway and tripled carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere! Enough politicians might then have the courage to stand up to the radio talk-show hosts!”
Dr. DeVito’s column referenced the $15 billion Mississippi floods in the summer of ’93 – which almost nobody remembers today.
Super Storm Sandy is the latest among numerous damaging climate events since then, causing untold billions of dollars in devastation to homes, businesses, infrastructure and human lives.
Will Sandy finally convince us that climate change is real and happening now? Will it convince us to reconsider our exploding appetite for fossil fuels?
Some of our political leaders are taking heed of our risky ways. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated in the wake of Sandy, we must rebuild our homes, businesses, roads, bridges and subways with the realization that severe storms will continue to occur with great frequency.
We can do something about climate change. We can get serious about reducing carbon emissions and investing in green energy. We can also ensure that rebuilding happens in the right places. New Jersey is a leader in using public open space funds to buy out lands that repeatedly flood in the Passaic River basin. We should take the opportunity to do the same in the most vulnerable of our coastal areas.
Bob Dylan wrote, How many years can a mountain exist, before it’s washed to the sea?
Post-Sandy, the question should be: How many years can our flood-prone urban infrastructure, and our beachfront and bayside homes, exist before they are washed to the sea?
As Governor Cuomo pointed out – and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 20 years ago – what used to be “hundred-year storms” are happening almost every year.
The answers are no longer “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.