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Hurricane Sandy Strikes US East Coast; Is Global Warming Bringing Stronger Storms?

Aired November 2, 2012 - 16:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program, where we bring you the big stories that we covered this week.

There was, of course, only one story this week: the catastrophe known as Sandy that made headlines around the world as it moved violently north towards the United States, first claiming 67 lives in Haiti and Cuba before pounding the East Coast, up and down and inland as it took an unusual left turn.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): She started as a hurricane and then turned into a superstorm. Sandy rose to such ferocious and monumental heights because she collided with other weather patterns. And in her wake, she has left an unprecedented trail of devastation. Residents and officials continue to clean up, and they continue to make their grim accounting.

And so New York, the capital of the world, comes face to face with the kind of calamity that plagues the world's poorest and least developed countries, death, injury, massive property loss, not to mention millions and millions of people still without power.

Some beleaguered towns were running out of everything, even food supplies and gasoline. Generators simply failed. Two of New York's biggest hospitals had to evacuate hundreds of patients at the height of the storm.

Public transportation ground to a complete halt before now slowly coming back online. New York's subway system, which carries 5.5 million people every day fell victim to flooded tunnels and blown-out power.

The National Guard was deployed to search for those who were trapped in their homes and the rescue efforts continue.


AMANPOUR: And while the storm was predicted and strong measures were taken by the federal government and by state and local officials to stave off Sandy's worse effects, and while geography also played its part, low- lying major cities, surrounded by water, a full moon and high tide, perhaps this magazine cover says it all: it's global warming, stupid, and that is our angle this edition.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Get used to it. Sandy is the new normal. Scientists warn denying climate change is hazardous to your health. And underwater, the town that gave the world Frank Sinatra, the town that was the setting for Marlon Brando "On the Waterfront."

"TERRY MALLOY": I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Today, Hoboken, New Jersey, fights for its life.



AMANPOUR: And Sandy was something. And with the entire East Coast struggling now to survive, tonight we'll be exploring just how it got this bad. What did our government leaders know and what should and can be done to stave off a calamitous future?

For more than a decade now, scientists have been warning of just this sort of disaster, including my guest, Michael Oppenheimer, one of the leading thinkers on climate change.

But first, the former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, who knows as well as anyone the dangers and the costs of coming up with the right solutions.


AMANPOUR: So, first let me ask you, Governor, you obviously had been briefed; you were prepared in your time.

Did Sandy shape up as bad as you thought? Or was it about what you thought? Was it worse?

ELIOT SPITZER, FORMER N.Y. GOVERNOR: Worse in terms of the aftereffects. I think during the storm itself, people kind of heaved a sigh of relief and said, oh, my goodness; it was not as devastating at the moment.

But then when we could step back and look at the scope of the harm, the magnitude of the damage to the infrastructure -- and it has highlighted exactly what you just said -- the preparations have not been made, were not made, were not properly -- investments that should have been made years ago simply have not occurred.

AMANPOUR: Well, you were governor.

SPITZER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: Why have these investments not been made? You were warned, presumably, along with all the governors.

SPITZER: Well, there are issues that have a timeframe of one year, five years and then 20 years. And when you are told sometime in the next hundred years we will get a storm of this magnitude, it doesn't get you to the point of decision that needs to -- where you need to get in terms of investing in the infrastructure to protect the subway, the hospitals, the energy system.

We have not had a mass transit investment system nationally out of Washington for 20 years. And so at so many levels, our politics are failing us; global warming was not mentioned in the presidential debates. And so, at many levels, there's a crisis. As a governor of a state, should we have done more? Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me get to that. Governor Cuomo, your successor, is being -- having his daily briefings. And he has talked about an antiquated infrastructure, that never anticipated this kind of thing, and that needs to be rebuilt faster. But I'm going to play you something he said. And I was struck. And I'll tell you what struck me. I'll see if it struck you as well.


ANDREW CUOMO, GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK: I'm hopeful that not only we'll - - we rebuild this city and metropolitan area, but we use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter. There has been a series of extreme weather incidents.

Anyone -- that's not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality.


AMANPOUR: So, Governor, even in the direst need of New York, the governor is feeling the heat. He feels defensive, even talking about these weather patterns, even talking about this climate shift and swing.


AMANPOUR: I mean, what does that say about the atmosphere here in the United States?

SPITZER: Well, look, let me state a few things that are also facts. There was, as I said, no question about global warming during the presidential debates. There are still people -- and I don't want to make this partisan -- but still people in the Republican Party who deny the existence of climate change.

The president, several years ago, President Obama did make a -- take a first step in the direction of either a carbon tax or some sort of emissions policy that would have been smart, and yet it went nowhere in Congress. When he went internationally, he could not get the coalition together. We have a long way to go.

Al Gore, whom I respect enormously, hey, he is a colleague of mine now, but where I work, he has done more to galvanize public opinion about that, but still we have so far to go before we can get tax dollars invested in the sorts of measures to save us from these consequences.

AMANPOUR: Well, Governor, I know you've not wanted to be partisan, but you have blamed the Republicans. But look, even under Democratic presidents, politically it has been very, very difficult to get a sort of tipping point momentum to concentrate people's minds. And America is the biggest polluter in the world.

Other democracies are actually getting together with climate change and trying to figure out what to do. So again --


AMANPOUR: -- (inaudible) take?

SPITZER: (Inaudible) in the first half of your comment, all I can say that you're right. And you're right. I want -- I want to be able to point the finger at Republicans, but that's not an answer. That is finger- pointing. The Democratic Party has been better.

I look at Ed Markey, who is a friend of mine, who has crafted the Waxman-Markey bill, very important. I look at President Obama, who embraced the issue of global warming. But nobody has yet made it the imperative that it should be, other than Al Gore, back when he was --

AMANPOUR: Explain the Waxman-Markey bill.

SPITZER: It would set limits and it would create a marketplace so that you could sell or buy the right to pollute.

It is the notion of several years back, that at least if you impose a cost upon pollution, then people will either avoid it or somehow transfer the burden to consumers so they will consume fewer products that pollute. It's sort of an old-fashioned economic concept. But it is not going to happen.

AMANPOUR: Now when you look around, I mean, New York is an international hub, not just for the financial trading, not just for tourism, but also the ports, the ports taking huge amounts of goods and materiel. These ports have been devastated, I mean, cars have been destroyed, 15,000 in one port in New Jersey alone.


AMANPOUR: Can these ports recover to be the economic hub that they need to be?

SPITZER: Look, without any question, the answer for that is yes. The resilience of a city, whether it's New Orleans or New York in particular, look, we had 9/11, which we should not forget the devastation on 9/11, what was -- it's hard to sort of --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible).

SPITZER: This is a broader geographic area. That one was emotionally worse, of course, in terms of lives lost. That one was much worse.

But we are resilient. We will bounce back. A month from now, people will say, oh, yes. They will begin to talk about this in the past tense in most of the city, not in the particular communities that have been utterly destroyed and in New Jersey as well. And I feel for Chris Christie and the folks across the river.

But we will bounce back and I think we will -- the question is, the one you're posing: will we respond wisely and invest so that it does not happen again? And this is an issue for London, New York, San Francisco, any city that is proximate to water.

AMANPOUR: Do you think we will respond wisely?

SPITZER: All I can say is I hope so. And I hope -- again, I don't want to be partisan. I hope that whoever's elected president -- obviously, I'm for Barack Obama -- uses this as a catalyst to say to Congress and to the public, this is something we must deal with, both in terms of investment and infrastructure and the megaissue of global warming.

AMANPOUR: Do you think it'll make a difference if Obama is elected? And you've tried not to be partisan. But obviously, this election is coming up. Obama today is touring with one of the most well-known Republican governors and they're being very nice to each other.


AMANPOUR: Is this a momentum generator for the president as he goes into the election? Or is this a momentum, you know, stopper for Mitt Romney? How does this play?

SPITZER: It's more the latter. I think the past several weeks, the politics of this has been that Mitt Romney, for reasons that are hard to get my arms around, has been on a roll since the first debate, which he clearly won. He has captured the public's imagination and bizarrely has been the positive, affirmative voice of change and hope. How bizarre and quixotic is that?

And Barack Obama has been playing defense. This storm, I think, stopped that and got people to focus, again, the meme in the Republican Party at their convention was mocking the notion that government had built anything that mattered. I think now the public appreciates government matters.

When you see the folks showing up to rescue the elderly, when you see the policemen going down to save people at the subway system, government matters. So I think that helps Barack Obama.

But he needs to build on that in a second term. I still think he'll win. I still think Ohio is his firewall. He will win, but he needs to use this to say to the Republican leadership, to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, guys, we must find a common ground.

AMANPOUR: He tried that the first time around. It didn't work, not just because of the Republicans, but his techniques as well weren't thoroughly successful.

SPITZER: I would go beyond that.


SPITZER: He caved on too many issues, but that's OK. One learns as one goes forward.

AMANPOUR: All right. Will it be different in a second term?

SPITZER: Yes. He will be freed of some of the constraints. He won't worry about reelection. He will be -- he's galvanized the public that is his base. He is firmer in his beliefs. I think November 7, when he wakes up a reelected president, he says, I've got four years now to stand up for the principles I believe in. And I think he will be a fundamentally stronger person.

AMANPOUR: And do you believe -- because he did try it in his first term, and he regretted not going for it, that he will do climate change in his second term?

SPITZER: I do indeed. I think he wants to be the historic president. He's done health care. He will bring us back economically. There's a slow, painful grind, but I think he sees climate change as something he can do.

AMANPOUR: Well, I think all our lives depend on it, and our children's and our grandchildren's.

SPITZER: I agree.

AMANPOUR: Governor, thank you very much for being with us.

SPITZER: Thank you for inviting me.


AMANPOUR: So what about those who would still deny climate change? While scientists say it did not cause Sandy, they also say climate change made her effects that much worse.

When we come back, the leading scientist who's been warning government and proposing workable solutions.

But before we go back to a break, another glimpse of the havoc that Sandy has wrought. Take a look at this view of New York City from Brooklyn looking towards Manhattan as the lights went out that fateful first night. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Superstorm Sandy is not an anomaly; rather, it is just a taste of things to come, both here in the United States and around the world. That is according to my next guest, climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer was a lead author of the U.N. panel on climate change, which, along with the environmental activists and former U.S. vice president, Al Gore, won the Nobel peace prize in 2007.


AMANPOUR: So are you stunned by what happened? Did you, in your wildest dreams, believe that this is -- this would be the result?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, sort of professionally, I knew it could happen. But until it happens to you, and hits you on the head, you don't really fully appreciate what it's like to be in a situation like this.

I live in the area of Manhattan that's blocked out, that's blacked out. I went down to the coast before the storm peaked to watch the seas rising. And even though we've predicted stuff like this in the past, it was a shock to me to see it.

AMANPOUR: I mean, it is a little third-world, if you don't mind me saying that, about this great city, it's half in the dark, hundreds of thousands of people don't have power. Did you expect that to happen?

OPPENHEIMER: Before the storm hit in its full fury, my wife asked me if we needed to worry about the electricity going out. I said, nah, you know, we don't live in the flood zone. We're a little higher than that. It's not going to affect us.

Little did I realize that the utility had some of their transformers and some of their substations right in the area that could be flooded. Why it's like that, I'm not sure; possibly because the system was designed 100 years ago. That was before sea level rose by a foot, which now threatens a lot more of the city. And that's the heart of the problem.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's talk about this. You heard my conversation with the former governor, Eliot Spitzer, talking about what needs to be done and this sort of antiquated system, and the political will needing to be corralled to fix it and to move forward. You, though, and your fellow scientists, have been briefing and warning all sorts of officials.

OPPENHEIMER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: What do you tell them? And then what do they tell you?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, the officials, particularly in this city, know. They've been hearing it for at least 20 years. We had one of these hundred-year storms in 1992, and since then, they've known the subway system could flood. They've known the power could go out.

And they -- and had actually laid plans for the future, which are sensitive to global warming and the threat, but they don't have the political will to actually start moving very fast and putting anything into effect.

So they raised some of the subway station entrances along in order to make them less difficult -- more difficult to flood. They made a few changes here and there, but really grappling with it, they haven't done.

But you know, in this city, we have, in the past, built infrastructure with the future in mind. We have a glorious water supply system, which we built over the course of 150 years. People thought ahead. We can still do it.

AMANPOUR: So what does need to happen? What are the big things, big ticket items that are vital?

OPPENHEIMER: We need to make it more difficult for people to situate infrastructure right on the coast. Actually, we shouldn't allow it unless it's absolutely necessary.

AMANPOUR: So ban it, bring everything in from the coast?

OPPENHEIMER: Everything. It needs -- and all new buildings should be in.

Second of all, we need to take the easy steps to prevent things like subways from getting flooded. We need to raise the entrances. We need to protect roadways and change the gratings so water doesn't automatically go down to a low point. We need to raise the highways that are right along the coastline.

And then we need to consider the more long-term and more difficult, more expensive measures, like the possibility of doing what London did, which is build a storm barrier, which is lowered when there's a big storm coming up and protects London from a Thames tidal surge. We got to start thinking for the long term.

AMANPOUR: How much would that cost, do you think, and how long would that take?

OPPENHEIMER: It would costs tens of billions of dollars. It would take decades to complete. But if you don't start now, as the world warms and these storms become more frequent, we're going to be caught out again.

So if we want to avoid having just more of these devastating surges and having nothing to do to deal with them except run for our lives, we have to start thinking, planning and even spending right now.

AMANPOUR: Well, look at this, in our desk; we have this Arctic ice mass. This is 1980, big. It's there still.


AMANPOUR: And now the latest picture shows, look, 2012. I mean, half if not more is gone.

OPPENHEIMER: The Arctic ice pack is very vulnerable to warming because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the average of the planet. So this has gradually been shrinking for the last 30 years. And now it looks like Arctic ice in summer. It'll always be there in winter, but in summer, it's probably going to disappear during this century.

AMANPOUR: During the century?

OPPENHEIMER: During the century, maybe even during the first half of this century.

AMANPOUR: Well, so let me ask you, New York City has 520 miles of coastline. And from what I read, the sea level is rising exponentially faster.

OPPENHEIMER: Right. It's not the Arctic ice as a whole that affects sea level, it's just the Greenland ice sheet, this part over here. Land- based ice, as it melts, goes into the sea; it causes sea level to rise. If that happens, if this whole ice sheet goes -- which we project would happen if warming exceeded a few degrees -- then sea level would rise globally by about 23 feet.

This is -- there's also another chunk in Antarctica, which could contribute about 17 feet. That's 40 feet of sea level rise. The only way New York City or many other coastal cities survive in a sea level 40 feet higher globally is if they build sea walls. That might have to happen.

But this doesn't have to necessarily occur. We can still slow the warming and eventually stop it if we start reducing emissions today. We can prevent such catastrophes.

AMANPOUR: But we're behind the curve.

OPPENHEIMER: We're behind the curve. Other countries, particularly some countries in northern Europe are moving quicker than the U.S. is. But the U.S. has gradually, even quietly, starting introducing measures to cut emissions by introducing more fuel, cars with higher fuel economy and reducing, mandating reductions in emissions of the greenhouses gases from its power plants.

We need a new future, which is not based on coal and oil, but which is based on renewable energy. We have a potential bridge to that future from natural gas, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions in the short term.

AMANPOUR: I want to see if we can get that picture. It's an animation that was actually in Al Gore's film, in "An Inconvenient Truth," about the worst-case scenario, Lower Manhattan being flooded.

Is that science fiction? I mean, we've seen the floods.


AMANPOUR: But is it science fiction to think that it will disappear? And try to tell me -- try to sort of compare it to what happened in Bangladesh.

OPPENHEIMER: OK. Well, Bangladesh is kind of a worst case, because the highest point in Bangladesh at all, I think, is something like 60 feet. And most of the country is very close to sea level; storms come up there; they submerge a third of the country.

It used to be that a million people would die in a cyclone. That doesn't happen anymore, by the way, because they've gotten very good at the sort of inexpensive near-term measures that we should be paying attention to.

Here in Bangladesh, they built concrete -- they built concrete bunkers and they have a good early warning system. So now when a cyclone comes by that would have killed a million people, instead, it's still terrible; a few thousands. But it's a hundredth as many people. We can do that kind of thing here, too, and we're not.

AMANPOUR: And does it trouble you that even the forecasting is behind the curve? I mean, they're saying that this European model, for instance, is way more accurate than the newest forecasting. Is that true?

OPPENHEIMER: Let's be careful. The forecasters did an amazing job on this storm. This storm followed a weird and unusual S-curve trajectory instead of the usual, from your side, coming near the coast and going out that way, it went like this. That's very hard to predict. And the fact that the models got it almost perfectly right within a few days shows us what our science can do when we have a chance.

The problem now is that our satellites, our satellite system hasn't been well maintained. So the models don't have the data being input into them that they should. And we're going to have a gap of a few years.

So the first thing that government needs to do is pay for the science, because the science (inaudible) dividends, start reducing emissions, start preparing plans to save people from these kind of disasters that are going to happen, to some extent, in any event.

AMANPOUR: Professor Oppenheimer, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

OPPENHEIMER: A pleasure to be here.


AMANPOUR: Superstorm Sandy did not spare New York City's neighbors. Among the hardest-hit is the waterfront community of Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River.

Once a thriving port, its most famous export may be a skinny young man with a velvet voice. Imagine a world without Ol' Blue Eyes -- when we come back.


AMANPOUR: And finally, the bedroom suburb of Manhattan, Hoboken, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River, is one of the hardest hit. The National Guard was called in to rescue stranded residents and as the floodwaters receded, the mayor even called for emergency food supplies.

In dire distress today, half a century ago, this riverfront town helped shaped American popular culture. Imagine a world without Frank Sinatra.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): The iconic crooner was born in Hoboken in 1915, dropped out of the local high school, started singing with a local band and the rest is history.


AMANPOUR: And imagine a poorer cultural world without the iconic film, "On the Waterfront" and its legendary leading man, an early Marlon Brando.


"MALLOY": You don't understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.


AMANPOUR: How often have those lines been repeated, especially in election season?

Brando won his first Oscar in this movie, which was shot on the docks of Hoboken back in the 1950s, when the city was still a thriving port.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): While Hoboken struggles to survive right now, looking across the fabled New York skyline, it can take inspiration from its favorite son.


That's it for this weekend edition of our program. Thank you for watching. Goodbye from New York.