Hurricane Sandy and global warming

(Presentation by Tim Hall at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of December 9, 2012)

Today we want to give a working-class analysis of a recent major natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, and global warming. I will give a brief talk and then open the floor for discussion.

I will go into some details about Hurricane Sandy in a moment, but first a comment about its relation to global warming, to tell you why we linked the two topics. While the capitalist presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, had a tacit agreement not to talk about global warming in their debates in the election campaign, suddenly Hurricane Sandy loomed up right before the election and placed the question of natural disasters square in front of the country and stimulated a new wave of thinking about these disasters and their relationship to global warming. Suddenly the potential danger of global warming became real, devastatingly real. We will go into this later in my talk.

Hurricane Sandy began developing in the Caribbean in late October. It rushed through Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, reaching wind speeds of 115 mph and killing 38 people, 26 of them in Haiti, which was already devastated by its 2010 earthquake and by imperialist exploitation by the U.S. Sandy was a serious hurricane from the first. As it moved northward parallel to the U.S. Coast it lost some speed but gathered size, and predictions said that it would gather more strength when it would merge with a Nor'easter bearing down from (where else?) the northeast. As Sandy approached New Jersey and New York, the storm turned left toward shore as it merged with the Nor'easter. Its wind speeds reached 90 mph and it gained such massiveness that cold air and high winds extended 820 miles wide (we felt them in Michigan) and Sandy acquired the nickname "Frankenstorm."

A gradual rise in sea levels due to global warming had already been challenging the New York-New Jersey area. Sea levels were already being measured at about 8 inches above the long-term trend, with 2 to 5 more inches expected by 2020. This had already forced authorities to begin speculating on how to deal with the rising sea, and insurance capitalists had begun figuring it into their plans of how to rob the insured. The New York harbor was already considered vulnerable to rising levels, although typically a class bias permeated the discussions, as sea levels were usually compared to the elevation of southern Manhattan and not with the more vulnerable areas such as Far Rockaway, Breezy Point and Staten Island, where workers and the poor were the residents. Even a slight rise in sea levels means that a storm surge will reach much further inland than previously, because the rise allows more water to pass inland without friction from the shore underneath it.

Weather scientists predicted the immense strength of the approaching Sandy well ahead of time. Various mobilizations and evacuations were planned and held. But despite the predictions of apocalypse, little real preparation was made, a government failure reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. The poor were not fully evacuated from the most dangerous areas and little preparation was made to house them after the storm was over and their housing was destroyed or rendered unlivable. As it became clear after the storm, insufficient supplies of gasoline and heating oil were acquired, nor were the transformers at Con Ed, the electrical utility, prepared.

Sandy roared ashore with 80 mph winds five miles south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, at 8 p.m. October 29. It hit New Jersey and New York city heavily. Sandy simply pulverized the low-lying areas within its reach. Sandy's pure kinetic energy for storm surge and wave "destruction potential" reached a 5.8 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 0 to 6 scale, the highest ever measured. Translated into life-and-death terms, 125 people died due to the hurricane in the U.S. (71 in the Caribbean). 72,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in New Jersey alone (and up to 200, 000 homes in Cuba). And even when houses near the coast remained intact, electricity and heat were cut off and the population was subjected to great suffering. Sandy was almost as costly in money terms as the last great American disaster disgrace, Hurricane Katrina, and the poor have been treated with equal disdain by the government.

The worst affected by Sandy's destruction were the poor and working-class, often black and other minority, communities such as Far Rockaway, Staten Island, Red Hook and Coney Island. An immense fire broke out in flooded Breezy Point, Queens, and quickly consumed 80 to 100 homes in that area. Not only the deaths and injuries, but the complete destruction of housing or the rendering of houses unlivable, plus the lack of electricity and heating oil for houses that were still intact, created tremendous suffering and destroyed the finances of thousands of workers and poor people.

The rich capitalists often forced workers into storm danger, which cost at least one life. A Ghanaian immigrant was told by his "big boss" (his words) to watch the expensive cars in the basement of the Manhattan business; it was inundated with water and he did not return. In another incident, a group of transit workers who had been ordered to work in a dangerous area of Coney Island by their bosses barely escaped with their lives.

Much of Manhattan, inhabited by Wall Street and many rich capitalist businesses and upper-middle class flunkeys of the rich, was brought back to a functioning state fairly quickly. The subways were drained and power restored, mainly due to heroic efforts by unionized transit and electrical workers working 16-hour shifts. But still, lower Manhattan remains in trouble – in this case partly trouble for its rich owners. Apparently 15 to 18 million square feet of office space in the area is still unusable, due to lack of electrical and phone service. This is an area equal to all the office space in Dallas or Miami. Verizon, which provides phone service to the area, is having to entirely replace both its copper-wire and fiber-optic conduits, a job which may not be done for months.

Relief did not come quickly – or at all -- for the poor, for the working class.

For workers who live in Manhattan, like those of devastated outlying areas, conditions remained terrible. The Lower East Side and Chinatown, both immigrant areas, experienced very serious destruction. Lack of preparation by the authorities resulted in immediate widespread shortages of gasoline and heating oil. New York Mayor Bloomberg ordered city workers back to work within a few days of the storm, so thousands of city and other workers were threatened with loss of their jobs if they could not report for work, despite the obvious excuse of the storm and lack of gasoline, while at home they suffered from the fall cold. This was a big case of neglect of the workers and poor by the city, state and federal governments. It is inexcusable that insufficient supplies were on hand; there had been plenty of warning. In addition, it turns out that Con Ed's transformers had not been maintained properly; in a dramatic explosion over darkened Manhattan one of them failed during the storm.

The rising waters also brought threats to nuclear plants. Five plants in the New York area reported problems, and one in New Jersey had to shut down.

Meanwhile, the outer communities near the ocean were devastated. Far Rockaway, Red Hook, Staten Island and others were nearly in ruins. Houses that remained standing were often filled with water. Some of these areas are without power even today! The treatment of the workers and poor during and after Sandy is a monstrous crime by the rich!

Despite the massive destruction of the homes of the poor and the workers, there was no big effort on the part of Obama and the federal government to plan for the re-housing of these people. A massive investment was needed, but at the time Obama preferred to have a photo opportunity with Governor Cristie of New Jersey, an opportunity to hug a Republican. In his tradition of giving nothing to the foreclosees in the housing crisis while handing trillions to the banks, Obama and the Democrats offered the Sandy victims honeyed words of "sympathy" and little massive help.

Now, over a month later, Obama is reportedly asking Congress for $50 billion in aid, $30 billion less than the governors of New Jersey and New York had asked for. And why must Obama ask the skinflint Congress for the money? In 2008 he gaily handed trillions directly to the banks! Clearly the big bankers who reside in Connecticut's Gold Shore are way more important to this buddy of Wall Street than are the poor and minority workers of Far Rockaway or Breezy Point!

But this indifference was not shared by nearby workers and progressive activists, and residents themselves protested in various ways. Residents of the Red Hook community held a mass meeting in November 14 angrily demanding massive aid. Within days of the storm large numbers of volunteers rushed to help the critical areas and large amounts of material aid were donated. Thousands of people devoted long hours to aid the poor. This was a very moving effort. Occupy Wall Street leaped to help and wound up setting up the most efficient organization of aid, so recognized that the National Guard came to them for training. Occupy set up many relief collection centers throughout the New York area; today they maintain two in Brooklyn and one in Philadelphia and continue to supply the people, even though Mayor Bloomberg ordered the closing of Occupy Sandy's open-air distribution centers in Rockaway and elsewhere.

Now, over a month after the hurricane, poor workers in the devastated areas are still without housing and even power in many places. Occupy Wall Street reported Thursday: "A month after Hurricane Sandy first hit many residents, homeowners and tenants alike are still living without electricity, heat, and working appliances. Black mold is taking hold of walls and other surfaces, and absentee landlords refuse to fix their properties. Temporary housing is desperately needed." Many landlords are refusing to fix their properties as they wait in hopes that rich capitalist developers, who have been eying these coastal properties for years, will buy them out.

I will end this section of my talk with a poem by a Facbook friend of mine in New York, Mark Naison:

Notorious Phd's Sandy Jam

Bayonne, Red Hook, Lower East Side
Sandy crushed us while politicians lied
Millions flooded, Breezy's homes in flames
Casualties of Climate Change
Flooded, battered, frightened and cold
From Jersey to Connecticut whether young and old
We found homes and stores and restaurants gone
While fossil fuel giants still piled profits on
Beaten to our knees, we try to recover
We reach out in pain and find one another
Compassion and courage help us restore and rebuild
But if we don't change how we live it could get us all killed
Now Bloomberg wants to run his marathon
On Staten Island where homes are gone
Down Fourth Ave where people fight for gas
Half a mile from Red Hook where food goes fast
It's up to us to make things right
First help one another then carry the fight
To the Big Money people who run this town
Who enrich themselves while poor folks drown.

Hurricane Sandy was an immense disaster for the workers and the poor of the NY-NJ area and an exposure of the failures of the Obama administration in protection and relief for the masses.

But Hurricane Sandy was also a clarion call to the masses to take seriously the question of global warming and to debate the methods of dealing with it. Over the past 3-5 years the U.S. has seen mounting natural disasters: wildfires in the west due to the dryness resulting from drought; massive and long-lasting drought throughout the southwest and elsewhere; unprecedentedly powerful tornadoes, and others. And all along, average temperatures have kept rising; north pole ice has kept melting, causing dark, open water and snowless land to absorb rather than reflect heat; and permafrost in the near-polar northern regions has been melting, releasing the very powerful greenhouse gas, methane. And sea levels and sea temperatures keep creeping up.

Then came the disaster of Sandy. It arrived right in the middle of the presidential election campaign, while Obama and Romney were avoiding mention of global warming in the presidential debates. They might as well have agreed not to mention the elephant in the room, because he was ignored until he roared through the East Coast in the shape of Hurricane Sandy, Sandy demonstrated how serious the stakes are in the global warming question. The accepted wisdom about global warming had recently been that it might be causing some disasters. Hurricane Sandy shifted that general viewpoint forward, to the view that while global warming cannot be proven to directly cause any individual disaster, it amplifies them and creates an environment in which greater and greater disasters are inevitable. A parallel might be that as a drought dries huge areas, you cannot say that the drought itself lit this or that fire directly, but with the drought the likelihood of fires and their intensity have both increased. The result is more and more destructive fires. Warming conditions, in the case of Sandy. can be said to have "raised the baseline" for further weather turbulence.

For example, higher water temperatures provide more energy for hurricanes to feed on and intensify, and the temperatures in the ocean off New York in September were 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average. The higher sea levels, even of 8 inches, meant that the storm would be far more destructive. Its destructiveness was also increased by Sandy's merger with the Nor'easter, considered a North Atlantic typhoon; this storm was forced south by changes in the northern jet stream brought about by the melting of sea ice due to warming.

The result is that, while Sandy cannot be said to be caused, as a storm, by global warming, its size and destructiveness could only be caused by global warming. It was "Frankenstorm" because of global warming, nothing else.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, James Hansen at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York clarified the relationship of warming to disasters. He blamed climate change for excessive drought, based on six decades of measurements, not computer models: "Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change." He went on to write that the Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 could each be attributed to climate change, concluding that "the odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills."

So it is with natural disasters like hurricane Sandy. Warmer ocean waters, due to global warming, cause more intense hurricanes. Rising sea levels mean that they cause more damage to human life and property. And when you look around and see greater and greater droughts, more intense tornadoes, bigger wildfires and a whole list of amplified natural disasters, you cannot help but be influenced to see global warming as an underlying cause.

And the masses of working people in the U.S. are starting to see this; the attacks of the right-wing warming-deniers on pointy-headed professors' "fantasies" about warming are wearing thin. The handwriting is being seen on the wall further and further from the scientific community.

Hurricane Sandy raises two questions: how to defend the masses of workers and poor in the face of increased dangers and how to combat global warming.

And just this week a new, even more deadly natural disaster hit the world – Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines. ("Typhoon" is the name for Asian hurricanes.) With raging winds at 150 miles an hour, this savage storm has killed over 540 people, with 825 still missing, including 200 fishermen. This total exceeds that of last December's Typhoon Pablo, which killed over 400. The latest news is that Typhoon Bopha has turned around and come back to the Philippines (fortunately as a weakened storm), this time to northern rather than southern Luzon, the biggest island in the archipelago. Add these typhoons to Hurricane Sandy and an even stronger case is made for global warming as an underlying cause of greatly intensified natural disasters.

Plus, the threat Sandy offered to nuke plants makes that case even stronger, as it reminds us of the precarious nature of the plants in the U.S., many of which antiquated and as dangerously constructed as the Fukushima plants, are near rising waters, in flood zones or are built upon earthquake faults. The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima plants in Japan underlines how serious this threat is.

The capitalists and their governments around the world do not take global warming seriously. The U.S. Government refused to sign the Kyoto agreement on global warming in 1997; today it and the Chinese fake-communist government, which ludicrously claims that China is just a poor developing country, are resisting most efforts against global warming, not because they are insufficient but in order to preserve capitalist profits. And the other capitalist governments through most of the world are following suit. The program of Kyoto, called "cap-and-trade," has been proven to be utterly ineffective. CO2 levels and temperatures have continued to rise and more rapidly than predicted. The reason cap-and-trade has failed is that it is a neoliberal market measure. That means that, instead of the governments regulating and enforcing major cuts in CO2 emissions, an artificial market in pollution permits was set up in the belief that price signals would encourage the plutocrats to cut emissions efficiently simply as a result of their drive for profits. A ridiculously complex system was set up, but the capitalists were not to be lured away from their polluting and emissions continued to rise.

As cap and trade flounders, the next program in line for trial, the carbon tax, is also a market measure in that it, too, merely seeks  to use price signals to encourage the capitalists to cut their emissions. This, too, will fail, while it will alienate the working people against environmentalism because the costs to the capitalists of the carbon tax will just be passed along like any other cost increase to them – onto the backs of the public, in other words, largely on the working class majority of the country.

The only method that will stop the growth of CO2 emissions is straight-up governmental regulation, as was done (not very well) in 1978 when the chlorofluorocarbons threatened the ozone layer. But that was a much smaller problem than the CO2 emissions of today. It will take very vigorous government regulation of industry to cut today's emissions sufficiently to slow global warming. The working class must fight for serious environmental planning and strict regulation of the capitalist polluters, and for enforcement of this regulation.  If any of this takes place before a socialist revolution, it will be through a constant struggle against the repeated attempts of the bourgeoisie to undermine and subvert environmental regulation and against its attempts to carry regulation out in a way that squeezes the masses;  this may become one of the triggers for a working-class socialist revolution.

Thank you.

With that, I open the discussion. Please feel free to get refreshments and to bring up any points or questions that you wish. <>

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