After the cold fall winds swirling around Hurricane Sandy pushed an enormous storm surge toward the New York and New Jersey coastlines several years ago, the ensuing damage left an indelible imprint on the public imagination. Restaurants with ocean views were battered by wild waves, homes were rent asunder, and historic lighthouses were pummeled into piles of rubble. New York City was paralyzed for days, and some 40,000 people were left homeless.
The dramatic destruction garnered 24-hour media coverage, but the damage to international trade slipped more quietly under the radar. No TV cameras captured the storm waters as they swelled over the quays surrounding the Port of New York and New Jersey or as they surged through operations centers, knocking computers, power transformers, and cargo control systems off-line. Scant attention was paid to the goods containers strewn like toys around the marine terminals or to the gantry cranes left inoperable by saltwater damage. For a week, container ships laden with cargo floated aimlessly in the calmed harbor while responders scrambled to repair the damage.
As concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere at a record-breaking pace, changes to the climate system—not least sea level rise and increasingly ferocious extreme weather—will pose a growing threat to international trade. Costal transport infrastructure, especially ports, is highly vulnerable. But this is a two-way relationship. International trade plays a well-established role in making climate change worse by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, but what Sandy portends is that climate change will also imperil the smooth flow of international trade.