Alex Massie

Did America bring Hurricane Sandy upon itself? - Spectator Blogs

Did America bring Hurricane Sandy upon itself? - Spectator Blogs
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Apparently so. You can always count on the British left to sneer at the United States. (You can count on quite a bit of the British right to do so too.) According to Jon Snow, the veteran Channel 4 news presenter, the United States should probably recognise that it brought Hurricane Sandy on itself. If he stops just short of saying America had it coming that's the pretty clear implication of his latest dispatch:

This is the wrong season for hurricanes to hit so far north. What has brought this upon what is – at times, and in some places – the most sophisticated nation on earth?

Has what is still the most energy-consuming country in the world brought this on itself to any extent? Is America – responsible for 25 per cent of all global carbon emissions, where the mother and father of the biggest vehicles are standard public usage – suffering from the effects of climate change to which she, and we, have contributed?

[…] And how vulnerable this nation’s “sophistication” proves. Bloomberg News, based in New York, talks of $6 billion in insurance claims. Nearly 14,000 flights have been cancelled, disrupting air travel across America with knock-ons across the world.

[…] Somehow who runs America becomes a secondary question. Now, surely, the question will be asked: in what condition is the America that is to be run?

[…] Climate change, global warming, are issues that have not surfaced in this presidential season. America is not alone in that. But as this vast country wrestles with a catastrophe that has affected some 20 per cent of the USA, and some 60 million of its people, the “why” word must surely assert itself.

Why? Because it's weather. It happens. It can't be prevented. That is to say that even if the United States were to adopt right-thinking policies on climate change there would still be storms and hurricanes and the occasional catastrophe. They might be less frequent or less extreme but they would still happen. Stuff just does.

Granted, these events appear to be happening more frequently and the US has been hit with any number of unusually extreme weather events - from droughts to heatwaves to hurricanes - in recent years. True too that climate change has not featured prominently in this year's election (though that's because Obama and Romney would each like to win the election and this is no time for a futile, vote-costing sacrifice). But so what?

Moreover and mercifully remarkably few people appear to have been killed by this hurricane. That is, at least in part, because the United States is a sophisticated country. Improvements in weather forecasting and hurricane-tracking  plus, on the whole, firm political leadership helped ensure the eastern seaboard was about as prepared for this storm as could reasonably be expected. To put it another way: had a storm of this sort hit New York City a century ago many, many more people would likely have been killed.

We know this. For instance, the Great Galveston hurricane of 1900 is believed to have killed around 8,000 people while a hurricane which hit New England in 1938 killed at least 600 citizens. Initial estimates suggest Sandy may have caused $20bn of damage. If this proves the case it will lurk just outside the top ten most expensive hurricanes in post-1900 US history. (Its economic impact may prove greater but that's a slightly different matter.)

It seems somewhat harsh to blame SUV-driving suburban housewifes in Akron or Tulsa or Scottsdale for this. (Incidentally, it's worth remembering that George W Bush authorised a significant increase in fuel-efficiency standards for US cars and light trucks. President Obama has followed his predecessor by raising requirements still further.)

Nevertheless, if the United States is to move to a more "energy efficient" future then it will need to invest heavily in two things above all: new nuclear power stations and the shale gas revolution. Opposition to these is certainly not confined to the liberal-left but, as a general rule, liberals (in the American sense of the term) are more likely to be concerned by these measures.

It is one thing to be concerned by climate change and energy emissions but quite another to simultaneously be opposed to some of the policies that might alleviate the very problems you consider so very pressing.

Snow's argument, however, is wearisomely typical of the sneering, smug, superior attitude always on display whenever something bad happens to the United States. As Brendan O'Neill says:

Here, Snow is putting himself in the same company as Christian televangelist Pat Robertson (who wondered if Hurricane Katrina was God’s payback for America’s liberal abortion policy) and Christian preacher John McTernan (who suggested Hurricane Sandy was God’s punishment of America for its permissive attitude towards homosexuality). The only difference is that Snow is asking if Mother Nature, rather than God, is punishing America, and if she is doing so because America is too big and industrious and greedy (all those people driving around in the “biggest vehicles”) rather than because it has loads of gays. Yet the implication of his musings is the same as Pat Robertson’s over Katrina: America, being morally rotten, had it coming.