The TV series, Years of Living Dangerously, continues to explore the personal impact of climate change and the politics and science behind it.
Just after the opening credits of Episode 3, aptly titled, “The Surge,” we see an aerial view of Hurricane Sandy as it closes in on New York’s Staten Island. It is an enormous, fast-spinning mass of white: scary, surreal, ominous monster of a storm that took more than 20 lives on Staten Island alone.
Viewers are then introduced to Patricia Dresch, whose life was forever changed by Sandy. Dresch describes every mother’s nightmare to MSNBC anchor and “Years” correspondent Chris Hayes: a wall of water that ripped through her Staten Island home, killed her husband and 13-year-old daughter, and left her dangling from the phone lines. “That’s how high up I was,” she recalls, adding, “I’ll never see her get married, I’ll never see her grow up. I don’t want to see her in her grave…”
Hayes also trails Republican Congressman Michael Grimm (yes, THAT Michael Grimm), as he works to help his constituents recover from the storm. At first, Grimm isn’t willing to accept that climate change is man-made, or engage in political debate about what is causing it.
He finally comes around, but is reluctant to take on the issue, claiming that Congress is focused on other things. Hayes refuses to let him off the hook, and tells Grimm,
“If history unfolds in the way that I think and science thinks it does, and makes these distinctions between the people that actually had the fortitude to stand up and say the unpopular thing and those who didn’t. History judges those people incredibly harshly, it puts them in two categories: it puts them in the categories of people that met the biggest challenge of their time, and the people that didn’t.”
The episode’s parallel story line explores the cause of events like Hurricane Sandy. “Years” correspondent Dr. M. Sanjayan, Executive Vice President and senior scientist at Conservation International, travels to Christmas Island, located in the southern Pacific, near the equator. This area is the source of El Niño, a naturally occurring rise in water temperature of up to 14 degrees that lasts about 6 months, and reorganizes the atmospheric circulation of the entire globe. Atmospheric changes brought on by El Niño can result in all manner of natural disasters — from droughts to floods.
Sanjayan asks scientist Kim Cobb whether El Niños are getting worse because of human impact on our climate. And just as the aerial image of Hurricane Sandy is breathtaking in an ominous way, the source of Cobb’s answer is breathtaking in a miraculous one. Coral, like trees, is an environmental archivist that can store data for thousands of years.
Coral, explains Cobb, stops growing when it gets too hot. In a core specimen taken from the ocean floor, we see a gash, or disruption of growth, that dates back to 1997-1998, the year of the worst El Niño event on record: more than 20,000 people were killed worldwide in a rash of floods, mud slides, droughts, and fires.
Cobb discovers the answer to Sanjayan’s question inside samples of fossilized coral that contain thousands of years of data. Her findings are striking.
“There’s something different about these 30 to 40 years in the recent past: larger events, more frequent events….The inference in uncovering an unprecedented behavior in climate in the last 30, 40 years as opposed to the natural variations of the last 6000 — the strong inference is that that is causally linked and that it’s related to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
Cobb is talking about rising carbon dioxide caused by human activity. In fact, as a group of Staten Island teens learn when climate scientists from Columbia University visit their school after Hurricane Sandy, one out of every four carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere is caused by human activity. And the extra foot of sea level caused by climate change played a huge role in making Sandy worse.
Radley Horton, PhD tells the students,
“ …. If you think of a basketball analogy — it is like the equivalent of raising the floor of a basketball court by one foot without changing the height of the rims at all. You’re just going to get many more slam dunks in the form of coastal flooding.”
Those explanations are cold comfort, however, to someone like Patricia Dresch who has lost her family and her home. As the episode winds down, we see her visiting the graves of her husband and daughter. She’s sobbing, so it’s hard to make out her exact words, but it sounds like she’s saying,
“It’s not supposed to be like this.”
No, it’s not, and that’s why we must take action now.
Photo via tumblr