The recent devastation in the United States is shocking. From North Carolina on the east-coast to as far west as Michigan, it has left a hundred people dead including 18 in New York. Some 8.5 million people are without electricity in 17 states; 3 nuclear power reactors got shut down, the fourth remained in alert mode.
The economic loss ranges from $50 to $80 billion. New York City is paralysed with its transport system at a standstill. A 100 homes burned down in coastal Queens and many key airports have been closed down with thousands of inbound and outbound flights getting cancelled. In fact, it was the first time that trading had been halted in all US stocks and options since a four-day stretch after the 9/11 extremist attacks in 2001.
The US President declared a “major disaster” in New Jersey and New York. United States, at least the eastern shore, remained paralysed for almost three days. This attack was not from Al Qaeda, Taliban, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba.
This time, the ‘enemy’ was a “Black Swan” event — a low frequency but extremely high impact event. An event which has the lowest probability to occur, but if it occurs it has extremely high impact. During the last decade, we have observed quite a few black swans, ranging from September 11 attacks, global financial crisis, global food crisis, Eurozone debt crisis, controversial movie—innocence of Muslim, to the latest one — super storm Sandy.
Each one of these events is a surprise to the observers but all of them had major impacts both on the domestic as well as on the intermational stakeholders. Due to globalisation these impacts have turned sharper, clearer, and deeper.
The US presidential candidates completed their round of debates just a couple of days before the super storm Sandy. They made a mention of every possible threat to the people and land of the US. Both President Obama and Mr. Romney committed not to compromise when it would come to the sovereignty and safety of people of the US. In their debates, they talked about how to tackle Pakistan, what to do in Afghanistan, how to restrain Iran and what stance to take on Palestine-Israel conflict. However, none of them used the word climate change even once in these debates.
Like their predecessors, they tend to shy away from climate change. This is despite the fact that the last IPCC report held human activities as the potential cause of climate change.
It is said that natural calamities cannot be avoided, but one can avoid a natural calamity turning into human disaster provided there are right sets of policies and practices in place.
One should give credit to the responsive policies in the developed world, including the US for its disaster preparedness due to which the human loss after such a massive hurricane was confined merely to few dozens. However, this hurricane cannot be termed merely a natural catastrophe. The US policy makers need to link this super storm with global warming and climate change.
I sympathise with the effectees of Sandy storm and I feel sorry for the terrible events of the last week. However, I must say that this storm reminds me of one of the most chilling phrases in environmental legislation i.e., “The Polluter Pays”.
There is a terrible geographic congruence of damage and response in case of hurricane Sandy and Mother Nature’s response. America is world’s only super power and world’s largest polluter too. It has played with nature causing environmental havocs in the name of economic development since long.
The US has practically blocked an effective implementation of Kyoto protocol. It was partly due to the stubborn stance of the US due to which no concrete agreement could be negotiated in Rio and Copenhagen negotiations on climate change. I can wish that this hurricane would bring some paradigm shift in global environmental politics. However, I am not very optimistic about it.
The comedian Jay Leno once joked “According to a survey in this week’s Time magazine, 85 percent of Americans think global warming is happening. The other 15 percent work for the White House”, illustrating the ignorance of American politicians — Republican and Democrat – towards global warming and climate change once they reach the corridors of power.
I think the timing of super storm Sandy is nature’s gentle reminder to American politicians as well as to American voters that issues of global warming and climate change cannot be ignored any more.
One needs to see whether the unprecedented large-scale disruption caused by the super storm impact any government policy in regard to climate chaos and global environmental degradation.
Black Swan events are low frequency but after the first recorded instance of the event, it can be rationalised by hindsight. What may be a black swan surprise for a sheep is not a black swan surprise to its butcher; hence the objective should be to “avoid being the sheep” by identifying areas of vulnerability in order to turn the “Black Swans” white.
Sandy has yet again identified global environmental vulnerabilities. Now the world’s only superpower has to make a choice. Either it should facilitate implementation on carbon emission reduction and turn the world resilient against global warming or keep on waiting for other Black Swan Events which would affect all of us but the polluters would have to pay more.
The author is executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute and can be contacted at email@example.com
This article was originally published at: The News
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.