Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change: Is There a Connection?

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As Hurricane Sandy approaches, I thought it would be fitting to discuss the various views about the relationship between the impending natural disaster and climate change. A range of opinions and comments about Hurricane Sandy coming from journalists, scientists, bloggers, and citizens alike continue to flood social media outlets with content in the form of Tweets, online news articles and reports, posts on Facebook, blog posts, YouTube videos, photos on Instagram, check-ins on Foursquare, and more.

An article on Storify by TreeHugger.com expresses one view about this issue by making an analogy that compares Hurricane Sandy and climate change to baseball and steroid use:

From Scientist, Dr. Gerald Meehl:

Think of it like this Dr. Meehl said: “Barry Bonds had a certain average level of home run production in his baseball career before he started allegedly taking steroids. Once he started taking performance enhancers, his home run production increased, and he set the single season record for home runs in 2001. Now he holds the all-time record for the most home runs. If we watched Bonds hit any one of these home runs, would we be able to say that it was directly caused by his steroid use? “No, that’s impossible. But the odds of him hitting one are much higher; his base state has changed.”

So climate change has caused a similar shift of the odds in the atmosphere that will cause more extreme events to occur than if no such alteration existed. But all of this isn’t to say that extreme events occur only because of climate change. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events, not their presence in the first place.”

In “Social Media and the Environment Online,” Robert Cox writes, “One of the most interesting uses of social media in recent years has been the ability of ordinary citizens to document, report, or even expose conditions on the ground […] Citizens, researchers, and environmental groups are using mobile apps, digital cameras, smartphones, iPads, and online registries to document their observations of the natural world or report environmental problems to others” (186). I have included a couple of posts about Hurricane Sandy in the following:

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Since Web 2.0 allows users to be “environmental eyewitnesses,” who have the ability to report and document news online, the way in which we receive information is shifting away “from a one-way, elite news media to a participatory model of content generation and sharing” (Cox 182). For decades of living in a consumerist culture, in which we sit in front of our televisions and listen to the radio in our cars on our daily commute, we have looked to mainstream media to broadcast the news to us. This caused many of us to be passive receivers of information. To, everything has changed. We are no longer solely members of an audience that takes in information given to us by those in power. Cox explains, “As a result of the ability of social media to document and easily share with wider outlets, more and more citizens, activists, students, and researchers are expanding our awareness of changes in the world that are often out of sight of the mainstream media or environmental officials. Such uses of media broaden our scientific understanding and also enable ordinary citizens to bear witness to environmental dangers in their communities” (187).

Those who would not have normally had their voices heard in the past can now share their views with others online. This sets the stage for pubic criticism of politicians and other powerful figures. Cox states, “With Facebook, , and other social media, the reach of public scrutiny and criticism has accelerated dramatically. This scrutiny has shamed environmental villains, criticized inept officials, and held accountable corporations, governments, and illegal operators for everything from air pollution to destruction of rainforests” (187). In the screenshot of tweets above, two of the five tweets direct criticism towards politicians in relation to climate change. In one tweet, a columnist on her personal account makes a remark about the failure to address climate change in the last presidential debate. In the other tweet, EcoWatch, “an online news service that supports the work of more than 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations and activists worldwide,” tells users to spread the word by retweeting if they believe that politicians should consider prioritizing climate change and offers a link to an article on their site.

Much of the content that environmental organizations, similar to EcoWatch, would like to disperse is largely found on their webpage. Unless this content gets widely disseminated through email, tweeting, or other forms of broadcast, then it is difficult for people who do not specifically seek out this information to see it. Cox brings up the challenges for social media advocacy, “It appears to be important, therefore, for a major news event to be present for the optimal effect of some social media campaigns, for example, a natural disaster, nuclear plant accident, or an oil spill. In other words, if the subject of the tweets is not on the front page, it can be difficult to get mass engagement with social media alone” (197). Whether or not climate change directly links up to the cause of Hurricane Sandy is still being determined and is still a much debated over topic. However, Hurricane Sandy has unquestionably brought to the forefront the disturbing absence of discussion about climate change in this year’s presidential election season. Therefore, while tweeting and other forms of social media have shown to be a terrific tool in highlighting the issue of climate change during Hurricane Sandy, will politicians and citizens alike start to care more about climate change once the storm passes? I certainly hope so.

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3 responses »

  1. I especially enjoyed your screenshot picture of the tweets related to Hurricane Sandy. Global crises are really interesting in that they attract conversations among many people via various social media outlets. In addition to many of the points that you made, I also think that the idea of “hashtagging” is an interesting concept. When people are tweeting about environmental issues such as climate change or Hurricane Sandy, they can be connected to other Twitter users not only by retweeting or favoriting, but also by following common hashtags. I really liked your blog post!

  2. Great post. I second Jackie’s enthusiasm for your screenshots. You’re also the only one of your peers to write about the hurricane. A great way to synergize the different things going on. Perhaps we can use the case of Sandy and social media in class.

  3. Love your writing! This is a very eloquent and thoughtful post. Just wanted to share that today, the 8 year old girl I babysit (who lives in Battery Park, an evacuation zone) told me that their principal had told the students that pollution caused the hurricane. While I assume that this is an 8 year old summary of what was probably a slightly more coherent comment, I was still struck by just the fact that kids who are personally experiencing consequences of climate change are actually being made aware of the connection in real time. I’m just so curious to see what her generation’s relationship with environmental issues will be, because of the combination of growing up with this understanding already in place, and growing up in a time (and place) where social media is so omnipresent and second-nature for them.

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