Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 3 opens with overhead footage of Staten Island, New York, panning over rubble-strewn neighborhoods left behind after Superstorm Sandy’s storm surge had receded, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured. Governor Andrew Cuomo famously commented at the time about the “new reality” of extreme weather, alluding to but never invoking the term “climate change” as the real culprit behind Sandy’s deadly wind and waves.

Less focused on superstar correspondents than episodes one and two, the third episode of Years of Living Dangerously was, in some ways, a more emotional installment as we followed two stories. In “Rising Tide,” we hear Pat Dresch’s experience of the storm; her husband and 13 year old daughter were killed by a 15-foot storm surge; Dresch’s Republican Tea Party-backed Congressman, Michael Grimm, had a flooded out, destroyed district to lead and changed his mind on the nature of climate change along the way to getting them aid. The second story, “The Scientist,” introduced us to Kim Cobb, the scientist whose work on the impacts of climate change on El Niño is centered on Christmas Island, birthplace of that deadly phenomenon.

Stories of the Week

Rising Tide

Pat Dresch’s tragic Superstorm Sandy story reminds you of other eerie, horrifying stories from storm surge survivors after Hurricane Katrina or other coastal storms. At first, they say, you notice a higher tide and waves in the waters near your home, followed by nothing, followed by a sudden, stunning wall of water bringing the end of your neighborhood, home and life as you knew it. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, interviewing Dresch, is moved by her plight – as is her Congressman, Michael Grimm, whose initial skepticism about the importance of climate change gives way to the evidence given him by a fellow conservative, former South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis.

Inglis has become an outcast in his party because he – like Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and John McCain before him – advocated taking action in response to this growing threat. So he lost in a primary election in 2009, as prevailing political winds turned against any Republican who didn’t fight mention of the very existence of climate change. (Prevailing winds were helped mightily by a half-billion dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry, aka Big Energy.) Hayes’ reporting here illustrates how those politics are keeping action on a national policy scale from taking place. After all, do we address coal or other fossil-fuel burning as ways to curb further climate change? What if this isn’t “our fault?” And if it definitively is not, why should some have to pay extra taxes or adhere to stricter, more expensive regulations? As Grimm notes to Hayes, the problem is much bigger than him as a single Congressperson – but as Hayes notes to Grimm, reticence to take on fossil fuel interests may prove a tragic mistake in decades to come as more people have to endure experiences like Pat Dresch’s.

The Scientist

Dr. M. Sanjayan, a senior scientist at Conservation International, is the correspondent who travels to tropical climes to interview Kim Cobb, a scientist interested in how climate change exacerbates the naturally-occurring ocean phenomena of El Niño, which happen when bands of the tropical Pacific near her research station at Christmas Island have a dramatic change in temperature for about six months – which changes the atmosphere and weather, resulting in deadly floods and droughts around the world. When trade winds stop around the equator, cool water from deeper in the ocean stops circulating, creating those warm bands; again, it is a naturally-occurring pattern. The problem Cobb studies is whether El Niños are getting worse, as economic impacts demonstrate, because of climate change and the fossil fuel emissions connected with it.

You may recall the historic 1997-98 El Niño, included here in a sobering montage chronicling the over $33 billion in damages and 20,000 deaths worldwide. The flooding/drought afflicted areas tend to be in the Southern Hemisphere and developing world – in fact, the event tends to trigger drier, warmer winters in the Northeast US and suppress Atlantic hurricanes. Cobb’s research, fascinating work in paleoclimate, uses the over 6,000-year-old coral she collects at Christmas Island to study changes in the ocean’s temperature over time. Coral growth is analogous to tree rings; each year creates a ring, and each El Niño a gap or break in growth, creating a thermometer of sorts which has been proven accurate in correspondence with other ocean temperature readings.

Cobb has found that El Niños are 20 percent stronger in the 20th century than they have been for the previous 7,000 years.  She believes that in 100 years, Christmas Island itself may be mostly under water after sea levels rise another meter. “It hurts my heart being in love with this place,” Cobb says to Sanjayan – a poignant note (echoed through much of this series) about what drives the work being done by climate scientists and others to care better for our planet.

Voices from Episode 3

  • “Everything was fine, and then there was this monster.” – Pat Dresch, Staten Island survivor
  • "There’s no oxygen left in room in DC for another big debate right now.” – Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY)
  • “But we are being taught now about climate change. The question is whether that can be coupled with the hope that there is something that can be done.” – Bob Inglis, former Representative (R-SC)

To Take Action and Learn More

On Superstorm Sandy and climate change: Rebuilding Cities After Sandy: 3 Keys to Climate Resilience

On climate change and carbon emissions: A Milestone Raises Questions about Climate Change

On the food, water and energy nexus – how those systems’ interaction can inform policy and action to protect our public health and the environment – see “Know the Nexus.”

To share your story about how you’ve been impacted by climate change with the Years of Living Dangerously team, let them know here

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLiving on Twitter or @YearsofLiving on Facebook using #YEARSproject.

Check out previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps!


Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain