Will We Be Seeing More Superstorms?

As humans push the edges of urban viability, disastrous storms could become the norm

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Hurricane Sandy is seen moving toward the U.S. East Coast in this NASA handout satellite image taken on Oct. 29, 2012

The New York Times and other media are calling the events around Superstorm Sandy “once in a generation.” But whose generation are they talking about?

(MORE: In Sandy’s Wake, Photos of Historic Destruction Across the East Coast)

Perhaps, if you are in your 60s or 70s or 80s, Sandy’s destructive forces are a-once-in-your lifetime event. But younger generations — those of us in our 50s, and our children — will likely be looking at flooded coastal cities, devastated infrastructure, blown-out power and storm surges for the rest of our lives.

We’ve got to stop this “angels dancing on the head of a pin” argument about the connections between individual storms and climate change. Scientists can — and should — try to parse out each and every contributor to a storm. That’s their job. But policymakers cannot afford to do so — or to wait for definitive answers. The overall picture is dire enough. Our climate is changing, for the worse. Reliability and predictability of climate patterns? That too belongs to an older generation. We need only look at the role of warmer North Atlantic ocean temperatures in Sandy’s growth to see this.

(MORE: Climate Change Equals Hot Summers. Case Closed.)

Just last year, once-in-a-generation Irene arrived — becoming the fifth costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing 49 deaths and 19 billion in damage. But Irene was a breeze by comparison to Sandy. And while we’ve been changing our climate, we’ve also been pushing ourselves closer to the edge of urban viability. We are digging a new subway — underground — in New York City. Are we learning nothing about what makes a coastal city vulnerable? For more than a year now, Amtrak riders between Boston and New York City have been looking out the window and watching as concrete slabs were hoisted into position — in what will surely be a vain effort to protect railbeds. A main transportation artery is literally inches from the ocean.

(MORE: Hurricane Sandy Will Put a Rickety Power Grid to the Test)

We must stop this “once in a generation” thinking. It is dangerous, misleading and irresponsible. Those who still believe that the powerful new floods, fires, droughts and storms are once-in-a-generation events are blocking the way to do something about climate chaos. Perhaps Sandy will finally blow that kind of rhetoric away.