Climate change is a significant and lasting change in weather patterns over decades and millennia.  It is tracked using data and most recently, computer models.  Mary Lou Foley’s home in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, New York was gutted by violent winds and rain during Superstorm Sandy.  More than 100 of her neighbors’ homes were also damaged by fire during and after the storm.


On the nights after the storm barreled through her neighborhood, Mary Lou huddled in her winter clothes with her faithful dachshund, sleeping on her partially rebuilt floor with a mound of comforters next to a small space heater. On the coldest days, she carried the space heater from room to room. Relief funds have helped reconstruct her home’s insulation, but she awaits more funds to finish repairing her home. Foley says she is “cold but very happy” that her community is slowly recovering from the devastating storm damage.

New York residents were surprised by the ferocity of Sandy, which was initially forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a ‘garden-variety’ hurricane but turned into a superstorm. Many climate scientists and meteorologists said Sandy’s power was fueled by climate change. How do “Superstorms” develop so quickly in violent storms?

Climate Changes Loads Storms With More Energy

Climate change, with its frequent temperature extremes and weather whiplash, loads storms with more energy, increasing their intensity and often, their range.  A warming climate has resulted in a 4 percent increase in atmospheric moisture. Storms gain their strength by gathering water vapor from areas that are 10 to 25 percent larger than the area where they dump precipitation. As water vapor condenses to form clouds and rain, it releases heat energy that adds buoyancy to the air and fuels the storm.  This pattern increases the moisture content in storm clouds and results in more and more intense precipitation. Without a dramatic, global change in the way we power our economies, scientists expect more frequent and intense superstorms like Sandy.

Recent changes in weather patterns, such as a few years of historic drought, and melting sea ice have happened sooner than projected by scientist’s climate models. The bottom line: The Earth’s atmosphere is much warmer and wetter than it used to be. This phenomenon is causing serious economic damage too.

Insurance giant Munich RE recently reported that the number of weather catastrophes worldwide has tripled over the last 30 years, and that climate change is helping to drive this trend.  During 2011 and 2012, severe weather and its impacts caused approximately $60 billion in damage each year.

Climate change is directly linked to warming seawater. Warmer surface waters evaporate more readily into water vapor, turning small ocean storms into larger, more powerful systems, such as hurricanes and cyclones. Hurricanes are low pressure systems.They typically start in the tropics, such as in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

Hurricane winds move counterclockwise near the Earth’s surface in the Northern Hemisphere and are often accompanied by thunderstorms.  A hurricane’s power usually correlates with rapid evaporation of seawater. Fierce hurricanes can morph into tornadoes.Hurricane winds of up to 155 mph, storm surges along coastlines and heavy rains are among the most dangerous effects of accelerating climate change.

Among the most intense North Atlantic hurricanes recorded, 5 of the 11 strongest hurricanes have occurred during the last 8 years – Wilma, Rita, Katrina, Dean and Ivan.  Scientists are projecting a roughly 4 degree rise in ocean temperature before the end of this century, which translates into “a very large increase in the destructive potential of hurricanes.

The scientific consensus is that global warming will lead to appreciable increases in rain falling from all categories of hurricanes,” according to Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moreover, the scientific consensus is that intense Atlantic hurricanes will become more frequent and more intense in coming years, if carbon pollution continues to grow at a moderate rate. The resulting economic damage will be exponentially worse – experts estimate that hurricane damage will cost us an average of more than $40 billion each year.

Heat Waves and Drought

On the flip side, climate change has been linked to heat waves and long-term drought in the United States by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. Drought Monitor revealed that nearly 67 percent of the contiguous U.S. territory is now experiencing some level of drought.  In the U.S., new record high temperatures now regularly outnumber new record low temperatures by a ratio of 2 to 1. In fact, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reported that during January to March 2012, hot weather records outnumbered cold records across the U.S. by a factor of 12.

These trends cannot be explained by natural variation alone. According to computer models, human activity is a big influence. The painful results are being felt by America’s farmers and anyone who wants to buy local produce.  If these trends continue, our food security will weaken and more people will migrate in search of food and potable water. The effects of extreme temperatures and weather on an aging U.S. infrastructure have already been harsh.Several states, including Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, and Vermont have already experienced extreme weather damage to their roads, bridges and rails. The cost of repairing transportation infrastructure alone may increase the costs of essentials: food, water and fuels.

Funders Can Strengthen Climate Adaptation and Education Efforts

Burning fossil fuels in limitless quantities–coal, oil, natural gas, tar sands–is creating what many climate scientists call carbon “pollution,” which is really excess carbon dioxide, creating conditions that most say will de-stabilize our physical environment enough to force us to change the way we now live to survive as a species.  These necessary changes are what’s loosely described as “climate adaptation.” We are approaching a climate adaptation crossroads: we can either begin to change on a gradual timetable or we will be forced to change very quickly at much greater expense. Even if we stopped our carbon pollution “cold turkey” today, it would take years to slow down these trends, given the current carbon dioxide load in the Earth’s atmosphere. Climate scientists are telling us unequivocally that we must accelerate our progress in switching to a carbon-free future or suffer more climate disruption, such as that caused by Superstorm Sandy.Together, we can achieve this progress.

How can funders help prevent the worst climate disruptions?

  • Invest more private capital in clean energy infrastructure to help slow climate change. For example, the U.S. could quickly rebuild its manufacturing base by producing cost-competitive wind turbines, lithium batteries and electric cars here, rather than in Europe or China. But many companies struggle with lack of access to capital to grow and hire more people.
  • Train more American engineers to design and build this new infrastructure. Funding scholarships for students of modest means would help train them for a rewarding career.
  • Educate more young people about how to adapt to a warming climate. They will spend more of their lives in an unstable environment. Two programs designed to teach high school students about climate science and impacts are the Alliance for Climate Education and the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA Climate Change Connections.
  • Fund more private and public research on the most effective treatments and drugs for climate-related illness, such as asthma, heat stroke and insect-borne infectious diseases. Climate change is also likely to increase demand for healthcare services, especially among poorer, younger and weaker elderly residents. Family foundations and institutions should help fund independent research and drug trials.
  • Rebuild sea walls, levees and park land that is highly vulnerable to flooding. Coastal states will be increasingly battered by superstorms, much as New York and New Jersey were by Sandy.  Given serious fiscal challenges, which will constrain FEMA and other federal agencies, states will rely on their own revenue and private money to help. Some governors are also urging people who live on flood plains to move elsewhere, offering financial incentives to move to higher ground.
  • Help fund educational documentary films. Many documentary filmmakers are producing films that help explain the relationship between fossil fuel consumption and extreme weather. Films such as Ben Kalina’s Shored Up and Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice help us visualize how climate change is and will continue to de-stabilize our physical environment.  Traveling to locations that have experienced climate impacts requires big budgets. Many documentary filmmakers struggle to pay their crews, buy expensive equipment and supplies.  After filmmakers have tapped out their credit lines, family and friends, they often raise new funds through crowdsourcing websites, such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, and family foundations. New funders often rescue these projects, helping them to complete and distribute their films widely.
  • Make private grants and loans in the areas of affordable new housing, small business recovery and strengthening infrastructure, particularly in US coastal communities. They would help improve our preparedness for future superstorms. As insurance executives know, it’s always cheaper to prevent damage than to try to clean it up and rebuild. In some cases, it makes no sense to rebuild homes or infrastructure. The best solution is to reinvent our lives and our energy infrastructure and we have precious little time to make big changes. But as a concerned citizen and thoughtful philanthropist, you have the power to help make it happen.

Sources: National Hurricane Center, NOAA, LiveScience