Last year, I wrote a piece for BoingBoing about destructive storm systems and why it's so difficult to say, in concise sound-bite form, what relationship that destruction has to climate change. In that case, we were talking about tornadoes. But over the last couple of days, lots of people have been having roughly the same conversations about Hurricane Sandy. When the clouds have passed and everybody is done sleeping in airports, people are going to want answers. Was this an unavoidable act of nature? Or was this something caused directly by changes to Earth's climate that have happened because we burn fossil fuels which increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
Again, there's not an easy answer. And, again, part of the problem here is that we're expecting science to operate on the scale of American media news cycles, which doesn't really work. We want to talk about this while the storm is raging or, barring that, at least immediately afterwards. But scientists aren't really going to have anything particularly deep to say about this specific storm for months, if not years. During that time, data will be analyzed and compared, and other events will happen, and that's really the stuff that we need in order to say much of anything other than, "We don't know for certain." In some ways, expecting anything else means forcing scientists to speculate and extrapolate in ways they aren't usually comfortable with and that aren't a terribly great way to understand the big picture.
But there's also something new, that I kind of didn't really think about when I was writing that post on the tornadoes. The answer to these questions also really depends on the motivations behind why you asked, and what it is that you really want to know.
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