Update on 30/10/12: Sandy made landfall along the US east coast Monday night, resulting in at least 16 deaths, and leaving millions without power. The storm also ravaged more vulnerable island nations in the the Caribbean, killing at least 69 people, including 51 in Haiti.
Hurricane Sandy is now the biggest tropical cyclone ever recorded – and she has thrown the US east coast into chaos.
Even the US presidential election campaign has been disrupted, with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cancelling appearances in affected areas and rapidly calculating how the storm affects their tactics. But one thing on the campaign trail hasn't changed: the candidates still refuse to talk about climate change. That's unacceptable, given that those two words can help explain how a storm becomes a bizarre Frankenstorm, and why there might be many more ahead.
Back in 2010, a paper in the prestigious journal Science predicted that "fewer but fiercer and more destructive hurricanes will sweep the Atlantic basin in the 21st century as climate change continues".
Here are three ways climate change is making storms bigger and more destructive:
Warmer temperatures lead to more moisture in the atmosphere, which results in hurricanes dumping more rain – which means more flooding.
A so-called blocking pattern is pushing the hurricane closer to shore. Recent research suggests that this weather pattern will be increasingly common thanks to the warming Arctic.
Of course, no one hurricane can be blamed on climate change – and there's certainly an element of freakishness to Sandy, with a tropical storm meeting a winter storm. But that doesn't mean the role of climate change should be ignored.
Over at Climate Progress, physicist Joe Romm explains it like this:
Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is “caused” by steroids.
All quiet on the campaign trail
The storm has thrown the presidential campaign into chaos. Both candidates have cancelled events and are fretting over how the disruption may effect their relative voting advantages. They are carefully tailoring their campaigning to make sure they don't appear insensitive. Meanwhile, Obama has to make sure he's seen to actually be running the country in a time of crisis. Ann Romney, Mitt's wife, has decided to cancel all of her campaign appearances and donate her bus to relief efforts.
But the storm hasn't dramatically changed the staggering silence on climate change. For the first time since 1988, climate change was not mentioned in any of the presidential debates – even though the threat is greater than ever before.
Again: climate change was not mentioned in any of the presidential debates.
Obama did speak about climate change in an MTV interview, stressing that the US needs to move faster on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While the message goes down well with MTV's young demographic, both candidates have concluded (sadly and wrongly) that elsewhere, climate is a vote loser.
In the key battleground state of Ohio, both Obama and Romney are running ads claiming their opponent is waging a "war on coal". And with massive fossil fuel donations, like the $2.5 million Chevron just handed over to support the house Republicans, politicians don't need much extra convincing to stay quiet on climate.
But even while the candidates and much of the media are failing to connect these critical dots and discuss this planetary threat, the public isn't. A majority of Americans know climate change is real, and opinion polling suggests that personal experience of extreme weather is one of the key factors strengthening that belief. But Sandy shows that without changes to US election finance rules, even the biggest cyclone in history will not topple big oil from its perch of influence.
Sources: Atlantic, CNN, Science, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Science 20, SBS, ThinkProgress, Business Green, Record, Washington Examiner