When someone at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association last week referred to the confluence of Hurricane Sandy with a polar trough just before Halloween as “Frankenstorm,” it may have been largely due the storm’s intensity and timing. But “Frankenstorm” produces another association. This monster, like the one in Mary Shelley’s novel, may have been human created.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summarizing data gained from countless observations, has reported that over the hundred-year period from 1906 to 2005, the average global surface temperature increased 0.74°C. Although the oceans have warmed less quickly than land areas, they have been taking in over 80 percent of the heat being added to the climate system. Warm ocean waters are the energy supply for cyclones. This is why such storms lose force when they run aground. And according to the IPCC, “There is observational evidence of an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970.”

Has the warming of the oceans caused more intense tropical storms? Are greenhouse gas emissions the creator of a Frankenstorm? Oceanic warming is consistent with intense tropical storms, but it is not possible to run the kind of test needed to infer causation in any particular case with a sufficient degree of certainty. John Stuart Mill described a “method of difference” to determine if a certain factor caused an event. Remove the factor, keeping the other factors in place, and see if that leads to an alternative outcome. But we cannot re-run history over the last 150 years and take CO2 emissions out to make the comparison with today. And even if we could, many other things would be very different without a coal-powered industrial revolution.

Intense tropical cyclones would presumably have formed in the absence of the current warming of the oceans by the greenhouse effect. Maybe Sandy would have been one of those. But the fact is that Sandy is not one of those, but one that formed after the ocean had warmed due to human activity. And Sandy follows a summer of record heat waves and droughts in the United States and polar ice retreating to its lowest ever recorded level.

It is worth reminding ourselves of Victor Frankenstein’s response to the terror that he unleashed. His life was ruined by regret. And why not? The monster that he created was directly or indirectly responsible for multiple deaths. Of course, these deaths are bad no matter how they came about, but to see one’s own hand in them is horrific. Frankenstein was driven to do something about the monster—if not to protect others, at least to have revenge.

The possibility that the damage Sandy has caused, and that any future tropical cyclone causes, could be the result of human doings should be an occasion for regret on the part of our political leaders, regret for their failure to bring about an international climate change treaty that makes any contribution to stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The mere possibility that the damage this storm has wrought could be caused by our emissions should be enough to spur our political leaders to act.

Even if this one is not a real Frankenstorm, there is little doubt that such storms are forecasted. Were we to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, the thermal inertia of oceans would result in warming for centuries to come. The monster is on the loose. It is a mark of Victor Frankenstein’s humanity that he was profoundly disturbed after the suffering caused by his monster. Will we see any such humanity in our political leaders after Sandy is gone?

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.


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