Surviving Sandy: If you go down in the flood it’ll be your fault

Talking about climate change at Guild Hall.
Talking about climate change at Guild Hall.

It takes a lot to drag people off the beach in East Hampton on a perfect Saturday afternoon, so it’s a pretty nice feat that The Hamptons Institute at Guild Hall managed to bring in about 50 people to a symposium discussion on climate change this afternoon.

East Hampton astronomer Dava Sobel grilled three academics from Columbia University on the subject for an hour and a half Saturday afternoon as part of the fourth annual Hamptons Institute think tank, which is presented each year in conjunction with The Roosevelt Institute, which is dedicated to implementing the values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The panelists were chosen for their broad range of angles on the climate crisis. Steve Cohen, who teaches in the International and Public Affairs department at Columbia, discussed public policy on climate change, while sociologist Sabine Marx discussed the decisions people make when they’re faced with catastrophic weather. Atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel gave the grim statistics on the raw science behind climate change.

“Sea level has been going up 3 millimeters per year. Over the past hundred years, it’s gone up one foot. Two thirds of that is natural, because the land is sinking,” he said. “But it will go up. We’re not sure how fast, but it will likely be one meter in the next hundred years and could be up to six feet. That’s a big number.”

His news didn’t come as much shock to a crowd still shaken by Superstorm Sandy. When Ms. Marx asked if members of the audience were extremely worried about climate change, most raised their hands. But few in the audience had concrete plans for what to do if another major storm hits.

Ms. Marx said that’s typical of responses to climate change.

“We used to think there was an information gap,” with climate information, she said. “But there’s really a gap between the available information and its use by society. People don’t use the information in the way it was intended. It’s a motivation deficit, not an information deficit.”

She said, for example, people tend to buy batteries and food before a hurricane, but they don’t think about buying extra gasoline or where to stay when a storm surge comes or shuttering their windows until the wind begins to blow.

“People have a finite pool of worry,” she said.

Mr. Cohen said everyone he knew on Long Island who lost power during the hurricane had since bought gasoline generators, in an almost willful dismissal of the fact that fossil fuels are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing the likelihoood of stronger storms.

Many in the audience seemed unimpressed by the discussion, almost as if to prove Ms. Marx’s point. One man said he hadn’t come to be told to stock up on batteries before a hurricane. The grumbling in the ladies’ room after the panel was over echoed his thoughts.

“I don’t need to be told to buy a generator. They need to build a wall out in the ocean to keep the sea out,” said one woman waiting on line, as many other women in the room nodded in agreement.

The men’s room consensus was unavailable at press time.

But it’s quite possible they were missing the point. Perhaps the most cogent of the points made by panel members was Mr. Cohen’s assertion that the engineering research that has served the tech industry so well over the past decade has not helped create the same efficiencies in the renewable energy market. If those efficiencies did exist, he said, it would allow the world to ween itself off of fuel that adds to the already extremely high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordan Moore put forth a theory that computing chip power would double every 18 months for the next ten years. That trend, now known as Moore’s Law, is now expected to continue until at least 2020. No such law exists for the power of solar panels or wind turbines.

The reasons why that is so go well beyond any esoteric discussion that could be had on a fine Saturday in the Hamptons. They have to do with engineering and markets, with fossil fuel lobbies, with scarcity of raw materials. Mr. Cohen said he hopes the Steve Jobs of the renewable energy industry is sitting in a garage somewhere (maybe in China), trying to figure out how to build a solar panel that could attach to the window of a house and power the entire house. That, he said, would revolutionize the world.

That would be great. But that technology can’t gain the mainstream credibility or sense of necessity it deserves in this country when so much of the U.S. Congress can’t face the facts that are agreed upon by nearly every credible atmospheric scientist in the world.

So, really, in the end, the discussion still goes back to what Al Gore said in that movie, what seems like so many years ago:

“Political will is a renewable resource.”

Sandy was a huge wake-up call. It’s our job to stay awake enough to keep the pressure on our elected officials to protect us all.

In the meantime, it will fall on local governments to prepare for “mitigation and adaptation” for climate change, said Ms. Marx.

“In the areas of food security and natural disaster preparedness, we need a very tailored approach,” she said. “It needs to meet the needs and demands of communities.”

“Maybe we need more video game-like scare tactics,” said Ms. Sobel.

They could call the game “Grand Annihilation Auto.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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