A Post-Sandy Plan for Climate Change: Protect, Prepare, Prevent

This NOAA satellite image taken Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 shows Hurricane Sandy off the Mid Atlantic coastline moving toward the
This NOAA satellite image taken Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 shows Hurricane Sandy off the Mid Atlantic coastline moving toward the north with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. Hurricane Sandy wheeled toward land as forecasters feared Monday, raking cities along the Northeast corridor with rain and wind gusts, flooding shore towns, washing away a section of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and threatening to cripple Wall Street and New York's subway system with a huge surge of corrosive seawater. (AP Photo/NOAA)

Sandy's destructive path has left a scar on our nation. Our hearts go out to the families of the more than 90 people killed, and to the Americans still struggling without power, food and water.

But in Sandy's wake must be a wake-up call. Climate change is no longer some far off issue. It's at our doorstep right now. We must consider how to address the underlying factors that are fueling these extreme weather events.

For a superstorm like Sandy to occur so late in the storm season, reach such fury, and have the kinds of flooding impacts that we are seeing, is consistent with what scientists have told us we should expect due to global warming.

Two reports I released in the last few months have detailed climate change's effect on extreme weather and in New England.

In 1775, Paul Revere warned Massachusetts revolutionaries of an invasion coming from the sea. With climate change, low-lying areas of Boston and the Bay State could now face an invasion of the sea itself.

Here's what we know about climate science, and how it specifically relates to Sandy.

One, it's hotter. We just had the warmest 12-month period in the continental United States on record. 2000 to 2009 was the warmest decade on record. That is heating up the oceans, including the Atlantic off the East Coast, where ocean temperature readings are the highest they've been since 1854. That warmer water fuels stronger storms and extreme rainfall.

Two, it's higher. As water warms it expands, raising sea-levels. And it's happening faster on the Eastern seaboard, where sea level rise has increased up to 4 times greater than other parts of the globe. When you combine a stronger storm with high tides and sea-level rise, you get devastation like we are seeing along the New Jersey shore and New York City.

Three, it's more harmful. We are seeing dramatic changes in the Arctic, including the disappearance of sea ice. New scientific research suggests this melting could be affecting the jet stream. That can turn what used to be a harmless storm into a direct hit on the East Coast. And that storm will be stronger, pushing higher seas farther inland.

If you want to take action today, I suggest giving to the American Red Cross. They can take your donation and get help to the people who need it now.

But it's also a time to talk about what a post-Sandy climate change plan must look like, to deal with the impacts we can no longer avoid and the dangerous effects we still have a chance to prevent.

For years I have fought for legislation that cuts carbon pollution and promotes clean energy. We have succeeded in boosting fuel economy for motor vehicles and improving appliance efficiency, including light bulbs.

But Big Oil and lobbyists for the pollution industry have blocked a national Renewable Electricity Standard, home appliance efficiency measures and climate legislation.

In a year we have seen superstorms, droughts and wildfires punish Americans in nearly every state. Congress can no longer afford to ignore clean energy and climate.

We must take action to Protect, Prepare, and Prevent.

Information, in advance of storms and to aid relief after, plays a critical role. That is why both NOAA and FEMA must have the resources they need to protect families.

As Gov. Chris Christie mentioned in remarks this week, the loss of life could have been much worse. No one took Sandy lightly, as early warning and real time information derived from NOAA's satellites and forecasts saved lives.

This is a perfect example of the dangers of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) budget proposal. That short-sighted scheme would cut $250 million from the NOAA's satellite program, crippling our weather prediction capability. NOAA ran an analysis in 2011 that found without data from the satellite closest to the end of its shelf life, the accuracy of its forecasts for major storms like blizzards and hurricanes would decrease by approximately 50 percent.

That's the difference between knowing the storm will bring heavy rain or cause a flash flood and would place lives at risk.

Republicans aren't just blind to climate change, they want to put blinders on our weather forecasters.

Our infrastructure is aging and ill prepared for the power of Mother Nature's warmer wrath. There's a new normal for weather, but the old bridges, sea walls, and weather preparedness remains.

Our energy infrastructure is also at risk. Oyster Creek nuclear power plant went on alert due to flooding from Sandy. This summer a Connecticut nuke plant shut down because its water supply was too hot.

Meanwhile out West, the drought pit farmers vs. frackers as competition for scarce water resources raged. These findings were detailed in my report "Energy and Water: Connection and Conflict."

Sandy's rage also left 8.2 million homes and business without power. This is just the latest reminder of the risk to our energy grid from powerful storms like Sandy and the June's "Derecho".

Like steroids juiced up baseball's homerun hitting statistics, carbon pollution is clearly juicing our climate. The last thing we should do is raise taxes on clean energy, like wind and solar, which produce zero carbon pollution.

Improving fuel economy remains at the center of this revolution. It is saving families money at the pump, while driving down global warming pollution. When the fuel economy rules Obama has accelerated are put into full effect, we will save six billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, which is an entire year's worth of U.S. carbon emissions. That is why efforts to derail fuel economy must be stopped.

No one should be in the dark about our need to upgrade our electricity grid. Just as we constructed smart, bipartisan policy for internet deployment, digital cell and digital television transition in the 1990's, we can and must enact smart grid policy in the first 100 days of the next Congress.

And finally, we must unleash a clean energy revolution and put real limits on the carbon pollution that is harming our planet. Instead of damaging waves overtopping levees and sea walls, we should create a giant green wave of innovation that sweeps across this country, creating jobs by the millions.

The Cost of Inaction:

Climate change is already forcing Americans to pay an extreme weather tax.

Last year, there were 14 extreme weather events that totaled one billion dollars more each in damages. In all, extreme weather cost America $60 billion dollars in damages that taxpayers, homeowners, business owners had to pay.

This year, we had the worst months of drought since the Dust Bowl, causing an estimated $50 billion in damages. Wildfires cost nearly $8 billion. Hurricane Isaac, which delayed the Republican convention, cost $1.5 billion.

But this isn't just about how climate change is taxing our economy. This is about the human toll it exacts.

Sandy has killed nearly 100 people, and the number has been rising all week. Kids. Parents. Brothers. Sisters. Friends.

This year's drought destroyed farmers' crops and ranchers' livestock, driving prices up at the grocery store for Americans already struggling to get by.

Wildfires torched people's homes in multiple states.

Climate change is no longer some far off issue. It is at our doorstep. Nearly every person in this country has experienced an extreme weather event up close in the last two years. We can't wait for the next disaster to take action to cut the pollution that is changing our weather for the worse. We need to act now, before more lives are lost, and more livelihoods are ruined.

If you are in the New England area this weekend, please join me for an emergency event to protect Massachusetts from climate change. Sunday, November 4, 2012, 11 AM, Arlington Town Hall, 730 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, Mass.