November 25, 2012

Responding to Sandy

The NY Times and Boston Globe have sounded the alarm that it is high time we start planning for climate change. The two papers have run 5 articles and opinion pieces in the last two days. 

Changing Building Codes to Limit Storm Damage [NY Times]

Is this the End? [NY Times]

Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastland [NY Times]

US Infrastructure wasn't built for extreme weather [Boston Globe]

After near miss with Sandy, more preparations are needed [Boston Globe]

November 22, 2012

Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided

The World Bank says - Turn Down the Heat! 

This report spells out what the world would be like if it warmed by 4 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes.

The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs. The lack of action on climate change not only risks putting prosperity out of reach of millions of people in the developing world, it threatens to roll back decades of sustainable development.

If we want clean air, we need to reduce soot

Soot is the mix of tiny particles that comes out of coal plant smokestacks, diesel engines, vehicle tailpipes, and oil refineries. It is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, and it's  harmful to the health of our children

New standards for allowable levels of soot in the air are on track to be finalized by EPA on December 14. Please join Moms Clean Air Force in urging EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson to finalize a strong soot standard. Here are three reasons to sign our petition today.

  • Soot is tiny. Soot is made up of particles that are smaller than a speck of dust, and less than 1/30th the width of a human hair. Their small size means that they are especially harmful. They penetrate deeply into the lungs, and can't be expelled through coughing. They also easily enter the bloodstream.
  • Soot harms babies and children. Exposure to soot is linked to increases in infant mortality, premature birth, and low birth weight. It also exacerbates asthma in children and interferes with lung development.
  • Our Bodies, Our Economy. Among adults, soot exposure has been linked to premature death, heart attacks, emergency room visits, acute bronchitis, and asthma attacks. The new soot standard would prevent enough adverse health outcomes to save our economy $5.9 billion each year, according to the EPA.

The Future of Wind Energy

The Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), which expires at the end of the year, has been an unparalleled success since it was enacted in 1992. In addition to helping lower the cost of wind energy by 90% and power the equivalent of 12 million homes, the PTC supports 75,000 wind jobs and helps raise $20 billion in private investment in wind energy each year.

Yet thanks to massive opposition raised by the Koch brothers and other polluters, we could be weeks away from losing one of the most successful programs to promote wind energy in the U.S., and tens of thousands of the jobs that have come with it. Not only that, but wind energy can lower our electricity bills. 

In an analysis filed with the state of Massachusetts, NStar estimated it could buy energy from three land-based wind projects at prices below the anticipated market cost for conventionally generated electricity, saving a total of $111 million over the life of the contracts. 
Much of that is in jeopardy if Congress fails to act. Tell Congress: Renew the Wind Production Tax Credit. 

Click here to sign a petition to renew the Wind Production Tax Credit. 

BP Settles Criminal Charges

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010

BP said that it had agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and other penalties and to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges related to the rig explosion two years ago that killed 11 people and caused a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is unprecedented, both with regard to the amounts of money, the fact that a company has been criminally charged and that individuals have been charged as well," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said.

While the settlement dispels one dark cloud that has hovered over BP since the spill, it does not resolve what is potentially the largest penalty related to the incident: the company could owe as much as $21 billion in pollution fines under the Clean Water Act if it is found to have been grossly negligent. 

Under its deal with the Justice Department, BP will pay about $4 billion in penalties over five years. That amount includes $1.256 billion in criminal fines, $2.394 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for remediation efforts and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. The criminal fine is one of the largest levied by the United States against a corporation.
BP also agreed to pay $525 million to settle civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it misled investors about the flow rate of oil from the well.

BP Indictments

David Rainey, a BP exploration expert,
is accused of making false statements
about the oil flow rate.
Deception on the flow rate, negligence in pressure tests, misinterpretation of data, a failure to consult: a look at the charges against BP officials indicted in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 men and spewed five million barrels' worth of oil into the gulf.

Donald J. Vidrine and Robert Kaluza were the two BP supervisors on board the Deepwater Horizon rig who made the last critical decisions before it exploded. Mr. Vidrine, 65, of Lafayette, La., and Mr. Kaluza, 62, of Henderson, Nev., were indicted on Thursday on manslaughter charges in the deaths of 11 fellow workers; Mr. Rainey, 58, of Houston, was accused of making false estimates and charged with obstruction of Congress. They are the faces of a renewed effort by the Justice Department to hold executives accountable for their actions. While their lawyers said the men were scapegoats, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at a news conference, "I hope that this sends a clear message to those who would engage in this kind of reckless and wanton conduct."

Legal scholars said that by charging individuals, the government was signaling a return to the practice of prosecuting officers and managers, and not just their companies, in industrial accidents.

Princeton and NYU use micro grids to keep the power on

Lessons learned since darkness descended on central New Jersey in the wake of Sandy's wrecking winds include at least one triumph: Princeton University's leafy campus stayed lit by tapping its own smaller version of the power grid – a "microgrid."
Students fill desks at Princeton's Firestone Library after the Hurricane Sandy
Microgrids were a hot topic among some policymakers even before Sandy hit. Backup generators may fail to start, run out of fuel, or break down. But microgrids like the one at Princeton act as a highly efficient, miniature version of the big power grid, operate 24/7, and tap into reliable natural gas-fired generators or perhaps wind turbines or even solar panels with battery storage.
Spurred by Hurricane Irene and a bad snowstorm last October, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have had teams researching energy options to hedge against widespread grid outages from increasingly violent storms. Microgrids, they found, can supply power to critical shelters, hospitals, and city centers even if the grid is out for days on end. 
Princeton wasn't the only institution enjoying microgrid "islanding" capability:
  • New York University used its microgrid to provide power and heat to a big part of its Manhattan campus while power was out all around it.
  • South Windsor High School in Connecticut typically uses a big fuel-cell system to convert natural gas to electricity to defray power costs, but it switched over to become grid independent and served as an emergency shelter during Sandy.
  • The Federal Drug Administration’s White Oak research facility in Maryland, which supplies much of its own power every day, switched to island mode with its own natural gas turbines powering all the facility's buildings for more than two days.
Few true microgrids exist today. Most state laws are geared to limit competition to big utilities.

California starts Cap and Trade

California's market-based system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions made its formal debut on Wednesday with its auction of state-issued pollution allowances. More than six years in the making, the state's cap and trade program sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions for virtually all sectors of California's economy, the ninth-largest in the world. Emissions allowances are allotted to polluters, and companies whose emissions exceed their allocations must either obtain extra allowances or buy credits from projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions.

A free-market auction has established a price for pollution in California: for each metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted, businesses, utilities and industries that bought allowances last week will pay just $10.09 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. 

$10.09 per metric ton works out to about 9 cents per gallon of gasoline. 

That works out to less than $4 a month for someone driving 12,000 miles a year in an average 24 mpg car. At this level, it is hard to see how the cap and trade will have a meaningful impact on the amount of energy consumed. 

A better light bulb

Osram Sylvania has introduced a 100 watt equivalent LED bulb whose shape and light color mimics that of a traditional incandescent. [NY Times]

The Big Challenge

No More Magical Thinking by David Remnick [NY Yorker]

Barack Obama can take pride in having fought off a formidable array of deep-pocketed allies committed to making him a one-term president. As President, however, he is faced with an infinitely larger challenge, one that went unmentioned in the debates but that poses a graver threat than any "fiscal cliff." Ever since 1988, when NASA's James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, testified before the Senate, the public has been exposed to the issue of global warming. More recently, the consequences have come into painfully sharp focus. In 2010, the Pentagon declared, in its Quadrennial Defense Review, that changes in the global climate are increasing the frequency and the intensity of cyclones, droughts, floods, and other radical weather events, and that the effects may destabilize governments; spark mass migrations, famine, and pandemics; and prompt military conflict in particularly vulnerable areas of the world, including the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The Pentagon, that bastion of woolly radicals, did what the many denialists in the House of Representatives refuse to do: accept the basic science.

The economic impact of weather events that are almost certainly related to the warming of the earth—the European heat wave of 2003 (which left fifty thousand people dead), the Russian heat waves and forest fires of 2010, the droughts last year in Texas and Oklahoma, and the preĆ«lection natural catastrophe known as Sandy—has been immense. The German insurer Munich Re estimates that the cost of weather-related calamities in North America over the past three decades amounts to thirty-four billion dollars a year. Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, has said that Sandy will cost his state alone thirty-three billion. Harder to measure is the human toll around the world—the lives and communities disrupted and destroyed.

"If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it," Obama said, when he clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008, future generations will look back and say, "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Those generations assuredly will not. Although Obama, unlike his predecessor, recognized the dimensions of the problem, he never pursued measures remotely equal to it. To his credit, his Administration has directed ninety billion dollars to investments in clean energy, and has secured several billion for energy-conservation upgrades; he got Detroit to agree to better gas-mileage standards, and finally introduced CO2 emission standards for commercial trucks and buses. For the most part, though, the accumulating crisis of climate change has been treated as a third-tier issue.

Last week, in his acceptance speech, Obama mentioned climate change once again. Which is good, but, at this late date, he gets no points for mentioning. The real test of his determination will be a willingness to step outside the day-to-day tumult of Washington politics and establish a sustained sense of urgency. There will always be real and consuming issues to draw his and the political class's attention: a marital scandal at the C.I.A., a fiscal battle, an immigration bill, an international crisis. But, all the while, a greater menace grows ever more formidable.

Inaction on climate change has an insidious ally: time. As the writer and activist Bill McKibben writes in The New York Review of Books, "Global warming happens just slowly enough that political systems have been able to ignore it. The distress signal is emitted at a frequency that scientists can hear quite clearly, but is seemingly just beyond the reach of most politicians." When the financial system collapsed, the effects were swift and dramatic. People could debate how best to fix the problem, but they could not doubt that there was a problem and it had to be fixed. Yet, as Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank, who studied the costs of climate change for the British government, has observed, the risks are vastly greater than those posed by the collapse of the Western financial system.

Meanwhile, the paltry attempts to reduce global warming are being overtaken elsewhere by the attempt to raise hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. Advances in living standards in China, India, and Africa will radically increase the demand for cars, televisions, air-conditioners, washing machines—in short, the demand for power and the burning of fossil fuels. There will be time to deal with climate change, politicians have persuaded themselves. But there will not be a better time. There will only be worse times.

This election hinted at the defeat of a certain kind of magical thinking. It was a defeat for the idea that deficits can be reduced with across-the-board tax breaks. It was a defeat for Rovian analysts who defy statistics and infer from the "enthusiasm" of rallies that their man will win in a landslide. It was a defeat for the fantasy that the President was born in Kenya and has a secret socialist agenda.

But Obama must now defeat an especially virulent form of magical thinking, entrenched on Capitol Hill and elsewhere: that a difficulty delayed is a difficulty allayed. Part of American exceptionalism is that, historically, this country has been the exceptional polluter and is therefore exceptionally responsible for leading the effort to heal the planet. It will be a colossal task, enlisting science, engineering, technology, regulation, legislation, and persuasion. We have seen the storms, the droughts, the costs, and the chaos; we know what lies in store if we fail to take action. The effort should begin with a sustained Presidential address to the country, perhaps from the Capitol, on Inauguration Day. It was there that John Kennedy initiated a race to the moon—meagre stakes compared with the health of the planet we inhabit.

November 12, 2012

Full Planet, Empty Plates

With falling water tables, eroding soils, and rising temperatures making it difficult to feed growing populations, control of arable land and water resources is moving to center stage in the global struggle for food security. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity and food nationalism? 

Here are a few of the many facts from the book to consider: 

  • There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them with empty plates. 
  • As a result of chronic hunger, 48 percent of all children in India are undersized, underweight, and likely to have IQs that are on average 10-15 points lower than those of well-nourished children. Food prices are rising dramatically. 
  • The U.N. Food Price Index in June 2012 was twice the base level of 2002-04. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted. 
  • A startling 80 percent of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable yield. 
  • Between 2005 and 2011, the amount of grain used to produce fuel for cars in the United States climbed from 41 million to 127 million tons—nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest.  
  • In 2011, China consumed 70 million tons of soybeans, 56 million of which had to be imported. Almost all went into livestock feed. 

Today, with incomes rising fast in emerging economies, there are at least 3 billion people moving up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. Data for India indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. 

For China, there are 130 million in the same boat. In Ethiopia, a prime target for foreign land acquisitions yet also a major food aid recipient, an acre of land can be leased for less than $1 per year. The 464 land acquisitions identified by the World Bank in 2010 totaled some 140 million acres—more than is planted in corn and wheat combined in the United States. It’s not all bad news: 44 countries have reached population stability as a result of gradual fertility decline over the last several generations.

Zero Waste in San Francisco?

San Francisco has established itself as a global leader in waste management by diverting 77% of its waste away from landfills and incinerators. The city has achieved its national distinction through a three-pronged approach: enacting strong waste reduction legislation, partnering with a like-minded waste management company to innovate new programs, and creating a culture of recycling and composting.

Merging Community Commitment and Government Action

San Francisco’s zero waste journey began with enactment of a state law in 1989, the Integrated Waste Management Act. The law required cities and counties to divert 25 percent of municipal solid waste by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. Over the last two decades, San Francisco built upon this requirement by passing several successive ordinances that targeted additional areas of the waste stream.

In 2002, the city set an ambitious goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. Since then, legislation has pushed the city, residents, and businesses to increase their recycling rates. These waste reduction laws include an ordinance on recovery of construction and demolition debris, passed in 2006, and a requirement that restaurants use compostable or recyclable take-out containers in 2007. In 2009, after residents and businesses became accustomed to voluntary composting, San Francisco passed a landmark law that mandated recycling and composting for all residents and businesses. More recently, the city passed an ordinance requiring all retail stores to provide compostable, recycled, or recyclable bags starting October 2012. All of these laws have been timed so that the necessary infrastructure is available, and participants are given support, tools, and education.

The city of San Francisco has been extremely successful in altering the minds, habits, and culture of its citizens to accept the goal of zero waste. In the US, this is no easy feat, especially given negative perceptions related to food scraps and wet waste in general. In March 2012, the city marked its millionth ton of organic waste turned into compost. The city is well on its way to meeting the zero waste deadline of 2020.

Shooting the Messenger


Does this sound familiar? A quantitative prediction is inconvenient for some heavily invested folks. Legitimate questions about methodology morph quickly into accusations that the researchers have put their thumb on the scale and that they are simply making their awkward predictions to feather their own nest. Others loudly proclaim that the methodology could never work and imply that anyone who knows anything knows that - it’s simply common sense! Audit sites spring up to re-process the raw data and produce predictions more to the liking of their audience. People who have actually championed the methods being used, and so really should know better, indulge in some obvious wish-casting (i.e. forecasting what you would like to be true, despite the absence of any evidence to support it).

Contrarian attacks on climate science, right?

Actually no. This was assorted conservative punditry attacking Nate Silver (of the 538 blog) because his (Bayesian) projections for Tuesday’s election didn’t accord with what they wanted to hear. The leap from asking questions to cherry-pickingaccusations of malfeasance and greed, auditsdenial, and wish-casting was quite rapid, but it followed a very familiar pattern. People who value their personal attachments above objective knowledge seem to spend an inordinate amount of time finding reasons to dismiss the messenger when they don’t like the message.

Addressing Climate Change: Cost Benefit Analysis

Recent reports suggest that the economic cost of Hurricane Sandy could reach $50 billion and that in the current quarter, the hurricane could remove as much as half a percentage point from the nation's economic growth. 

Economists of diverse viewpoints agree that the economic benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would greatly outweigh the costs. 

A good model is provided by rules from the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, widely supported by the automobile industry, which will increase the fuel economy of cars to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025.
The fuel economy rules will eventually save consumers more than $1.7 trillion, cut United States oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six billion metric tons — more than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the United States in 2010. The monetary benefits of these rules exceed the monetary costs by billions of dollars annually.
In a similar vein, recent rules from the Department of Energy are requiring greater energy efficiency from appliances like refrigerators, washing machines and small motors. For these rules as well, the monetary benefits dwarf the costs, and they include large savings to consumers as well as pollution reductions.

Who pays for climate change?

Source: CNN

Sandy's estimated costs are $10–$20 billion in insured losses with at least another $50 billion in economic damages. The $12 billion in government money set aside for disaster relief this year will be easily gobbled up in the recovery. Congress will be forced to seek additional money to help effected citizens. 

Hurricane Sandy, however, is only one piece of the climate impact puzzle. This year the country has also experienced record drought, widespread wildfires, and the worst West Nile virus outbreak ever. Munich Re put the cost of the first six months of 2012's extreme weather events at over $14.5 billion. All of these impacts have required a federal government response. 

So, if we are serious about addressing the federal budget crisis, lawmakers need to look at the exploding costs of climate change impacts and how much it will take to better prepare for such events. The choice Congress will face is who picks up the tab.

The past failure to put price on carbon pollution means that the costs of dealing with these impacts have never been borne by the polluters. Instead, the federal government and taxpayers like you and me foot the bill. The looming fiscal crisis and the costs of climate change demand this equation be changed.

The nation can no longer afford to bail out polluters and foot the bill. Putting a price on carbon pollution will help the fiscal state of the country, drive adoption of clean energy technologies, and place the responsibility of paying for climate change damages on those that cause the problem.

November 11, 2012

Voters send a clean energy message

In this election, voters overwhelmingly favored candidates who support clean energy, clean air, and strong public health safeguards.

This is victory for everyone who likes to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and it is a resounding defeat for polluters and the dirty agenda they tried to sell to voters.

The fossil fuel industry spent $270 million on TV ads in this election and yet they have very little to show for it. 

Oil, gas, and coal companies spent $20 million to defeat Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), but he won anyway. He ran on his record of supporting renewable power and environmental protections and voters rewarded him for it.

Fossil fuel companies opened their checkbooks for Former Representative Heather Wilson, a pro-drilling, anti-climate action candidate. But voters preferred Representative Martin Heinrich and the fact that he made clean energy and climate action a central part of his campaign.

In Virginia, fossil fuel companies and other outside interests spent heavily to take a senate seat away from the Democratic Party. Voters weren't buying it. They elected Former Governor Tim Kaine who has a long history of standing up for clean air and public health safeguards.

Voters recognize that clean energy and clean air deliver real benefits to our communities. More than 120,000 Americans have jobs in the solar industry, and more than 150,000 people work building parts for and assembling clean cars—hybrids, electric cars, and other advanced vehicles that weren't even available 10 years ago. More than 1 million Americans are now saving money on their electric bills because they made their homes more energy efficient. And hundreds of thousands of children will breathe easier once power plants start following new limits on mercury, lead, and other air pollutants.

Oil and gas companies thought that if they spent millions and millions of dollars, they could distract Americans from these benefits and undermine support for clean energy. 

They were wrong, and they lost. 

I guess money can't buy you love. 

by Heather Taylor-Miesle, Director NRCD Action Fund

German renewable energy easily beats forecasts

An official says the share of electricity in Germany produced by renewable energy sources is expected to easily beat the government's forecast and reach almost 50 percent by 2025.

Stephan Kohler, who heads the government-affiliated agency overseeing Germany's electricity grid, said Monday the current strong expansion of wind, solar and other renewable power sources will easily top the official target of 35 percent by 2022.

Germany decided after Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster to speed up phasing out nuclear power. Renewable energies' share in the country's electricity production has risen from 17 percent to 25 percent, driven by subsidies and investment incentives.

Sandy: Facing the New Reality

Hurricane Sandy should lead to a "massive reordering of priorities." [NY Times]

First, life has to be rewound to Friday, Oct. 26 — the last weekday before Hurricane Sandy crippled and disoriented the New York area. To make that happen, repairs to damaged power grids, transportation networks and housing will grind on for weeks, if not months, at a staggering cost.

But the bigger question is what occurs after that. 

I encourage you to read the entire article as it raises many interesting questions. How do we face the new reality of extreme storms? 

November 3, 2012

Time to talk about climate change?

IKEA buildings will be energy neutral by 2020

IKEA has announced plans to make all their buildings energy neutral by 2020.
They expect to be 70% renewable by 2015. Wow.

They plan to produce all their own energy from renewable sources. 

Extreme Storm Impact

A series of 3-D maps assembled five years ago from projections by the United Nations climate panel and federal science agencies show Lower Manhattan, the East Village and F.D.R. Drive underwater after a three-meter sea-level rise. And that's what Sandy's surge delivered. [Inside Climate News]

Experts Warn of Superstorm Era

(Photo: By Mark Lennihan, AP)
Superstorm Sandy was no freak, but rather an example of how Americans will struggle to survive killer weather.

They're telling us we shouldn't be surprised that this 900-mile-wide monster marched up the East Coast this week paralyzing cities and claiming scores of lives. 

"It's a foretaste of things to come," Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer told CNN. "Bigger storms and higher sea levels" will pile on to create a "growing threat" in the coming decades.

Princeton's Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences, recently modeled the effect of climate change on storm surges for the New York area.

In a paper published by Nature in February, he and three colleagues concluded that the "storm of the century" would become the storm of "every twenty years or less."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees.

"After what happened, what has been happening in the last few years, I don't think anyone can sit back anymore and say 'Well, I'm shocked at that weather pattern,' " Cuomo said Tuesday.

The conclusion of Oppenheimer and his colleagues is that storms will become larger and more powerful.

"Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges," they wrote. Sandy's diameter measured much larger than most storms.

50,000 Megawatts of Wind Power!

According to a report published on October 17 by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), 2012 has been a record year for the development of wind power within the United States. The U.S. wind industry has surpassed 50,000 megawatts of electrical power generation capacity, with a total of 4,728 megawatts added this year alone and another 8,430 megawatts in active development throughout 29 states and Puerto Rico.

According to the AWEA, the PTC is responsible for generating more than $15 billion of private investment in U.S. wind farms every year – an incentive that is set to expire on December 31 of this year if it's not extended by Congress. 

"Whether wind will continue to be a bright spot in the U.S. economy now depends on whether Congress acts to extend the Production Tax Credit by the end of the year," said Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA, in an official press release. 

It's Global Warming, Stupid!

Yes, yes, it's unsophisticated to say that any given storm is caused by climate change — many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. And climate deniers exploit that scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.
Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it:
Is it possible that this kind of storm could have happened without climate change? Yes, fueled by many factors. 
Was this storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.
Is it possible that Barry Bonds could hit a home run without steroids? Yes, based on many factors. We can't say that any one home run was caused by steroids. But... 
Do steroids help Barry Bonds hit more home runs and hit them farther? Yes. 
We now have weather on steroids.
"Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth's atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us." - Mark Fischetti of Scientific American
Globally, the rate of extreme weather events is rising, and "nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America." From 1980 through 2011, weather disasters caused losses totaling $1.06 trillion. Munich Re found "a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades," in a prescient report titled Severe Weather in North America.
By contrast, there was "an increase factor of 4 in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, 2 in Europe, and 1.5 in South America." Human-caused climate change "is believed to contribute to this trend," the report said, "though it influences various perils in different ways."
If Hurricane Sandy does nothing else, it should suggest that we need to commit more to disaster preparation and response. With once-in-a-century floods now occurring every few years, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the country's biggest city will need to consider building surge protectors and somehow waterproofing its enormous subway system. "It's not prudent to sit here and say it's not going to happen again," Cuomo said. "I believe it is going to happen again."
The U.S. can't afford regular Sandy-size disruptions in economic activity. To limit the costs of climate-related disasters, both politicians and the public need to accept how much they're helping to cause them.

What role did climate change play in Hurricane Sandy?

Kevin Trenbreth has the answer - published in The Scientist on October 31, 2012
Sandy started as an ordinary hurricane, feeding on the warm surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean for fuel.  The warm moist air spirals into the storm, and as moisture rains out, it provides the heat needed to drive the storm clouds.  By the time Sandy made landfall on Monday evening, it had become an extratropical cyclone with some tropical storm characteristics: a lot of active thunderstorms but no eye.  This transformation came about as a winter storm that had dumped snow in Colorado late last week merged with Sandy to form a hybrid storm that was also able to feed on the mid-latitude temperature contrasts.  The resulting storm—double the size of a normal hurricane—spread hurricane force winds over a huge area of the United States as it made landfall.   Meanwhile an extensive easterly wind fetch had already resulted in piled up sea waters along the Atlantic coast.  This, in addition to the high tide, a favorable moon phase, and exceedingly low pressure, brought a record-setting storm surge that reached over 13 feet in lower Manhattan and coastal New Jersey.  This perfect combination led to coastal erosion, massive flooding, and extensive wind damage that caused billions in dollars of damage.
In many ways, Sandy resulted from the chance alignment of several factors associated with the weather. A human influence was also present, however.  Storms typically reach out and grab available moisture from a region 3 to 5 times the rainfall radius of the storm itself, allowing it to make such prodigious amounts of rain. The sea surface temperatures just before the storm were some 5°F above the 30-year average, or "normal," for this time of year over a 500 mile swath off the coastline from the Carolinas to Canada, and 1°F of this is very likely a direct result of global warming.  With every degree F rise in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more moisture. Thus, Sandy was able to pull in more moisture, fueling a stronger storm and magnifying the amount of rainfall by as much as 5 to 10 percent compared with conditions more than 40 years ago.  Heavy rainfall and widespread flooding are a consequence.  Climate change has also led to the continual rise in sea levels—currently at a rate of just over a foot per century—as a result of melting land ice (especially glaciers and Greenland) and the expanding warming ocean, providing a higher base level from which the storm surge operates. 
These physical factors associated with human influences on climate likely contribute to more intense and possibly slightly bigger storms with heavier rainfalls.  But this is very hard to prove because of the naturally large variability among storms.  This variability also makes it impossible to prove there is no human influence.  Instead, it is important to recognize that we have a "new normal," whereby the environment in which all storms form is simply different than it was just a few decades ago.  Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and sub-surface ocean temperatures, a warmer and moister atmosphere above the ocean, higher water levels around the globe, and perhaps more precipitation in storms.
The super storm Sandy follows on the heels of Isaac earlier this year and Irene last year, both of which also produced widespread flooding as further evidence of the increased water vapor in the atmosphere associated with warmer oceans. Active hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic since 1994 have so far peaked with three category 5 hurricanes in the record breaking 2005 season, one of which was Katrina.  As human-induced effects through increases in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere continue, still warmer oceans and higher sea levels are guaranteed. As Mark Twain said in the late 19th century, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Now humans are changing the weather, and nobody does anything about it! As we have seen this year, whether from drought, heat waves and wild fires, or super storms, there is a cost to not taking action to slow climate change, and we are experiencing this now.
From New Zealand, Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He has been heavily engaged in the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), where he currently chairs the Global Energy and Water Exchanges (GEWEX) program, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.