Catholic Symposium on Climate Change… and Hurricane Sandy

Recently a few articles have come out describing a symposium organized by the USCCB on climate change. The Conference was titled: ““A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States,” linked here,  and as NCR reports, it “came about through a partnership of CUA’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, the U.S. bishops’ conference, and the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. Over the course of three days, five panel sessions, and several bishop addresses, the conference highlighted the moral implications of global climate change and environmental justice facing — and affecting — communities across the nation and around the globe.“We have seen the destructive impact of climate change and environmental degradation both around the world and at home,” said Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a pre-conference statement.

It is hard to comment on the conference itself since the publication with speeches and addresses is not out yet. But… it is worthwhile commenting on the narrative of the articles. The conference, auspiciously it appears for some, happened in the context of hurricane Sandy’s landing on the US East Coast. Here are two examples, from NCR (1), and Famvin News (2). CNS for example is more careful and addresses a certain case in Papua New Guinea, but doesn’t conflate Sandy with climate change(3)

1) The tides following storms such as Hurricane Sandy often bring with them debris from the destruction caused; lately, among tires and treasured items, the coastal waters have pulled two words back into the public sphere: climate change. That climate conversation washed upon Washington Nov. 8, and onto the campus of the Catholic University of America… Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, said that once-in-a-century storms like Sandy have seemingly become the norm in recent years as ocean waters have warmed, and such super storms reflect scientists’ general findings on climate change, that rising ocean temperatures multiply and feed a storm’s intensityHaving the conference in the wake of Sandy, while not anticipated, brought a real element of climate change to the talks, Misleh said.

2) A day after New York City experienced its worst storm surges in recorded history, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city may need to respond to climate change with steps like storm barriers. Such protections would be extremely costly, but climate change experts said Hurricane Sandy provided a first glimpse of the challenges all coastal areas will face as sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more frequent. Cuomo said on Tuesday that he told President Barack Obama it seemed like “we have a 100-year flood every two years now.” “These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” he said.

As Catholics we must be careful to embrace what media, politicians and scientists are saying. I have made this case about the IPCC before here. The case that Sandy is an evidence of climate change is by no means settled as I have written in articles here and on a similar claim with hurricane Irene here and here. While some claims about climate change are reasonable and possible, though by all means not proof, others are simply not true. Cuomo’s affirmation that these patterns have increased is wrong. Here is a recent report of climate intensity landfall in the US over the decades and Roger Pielke’s post and comments below:

The figure above comes courtesy Chris Landsea of the US National Hurricane Center. It shows the annual intensity of US landfalling hurricanes from 1900 to 2012. The figure updates a graph first published in Nature in 2005 ( Figure 2 here in PDF, details described there).

The red bars show the annual data. The grey straight line is the linear trend (no trend) and the black line shows the five-year average. The most recent five years have the lowest landfalling hurricane intensity of any five-year period back to 1900. By contrast 2004 and 2005 saw the most intense seasons of landfalling storms.
The data shown above includes both hurricanes and post-tropical cyclones which made landfall at hurricane strength (i.e., storms like Sandy). In addition to Sandy, there have been 3 other such storms to make landfall, in 1904, 1924 and 1925. The addition of the storms does not make a significant impact on the graph.

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The plight of the Amazon: Seeking the Truth

Here are 2 videos about the Amazon and apparent efforts to destroy and protect it. I say apparent since reality is often not as clean cut as the videos project. In both cases the videos involve people who are somehow related, in the first case I know well a person who works at the Repsol plant in Ecuador. I will keep their identities anonymous.

1. Repsol and oil exploration

What my contact explains is that many of the employees of Repsol in the video still work there to this day. The video in general is quite accurate. But some points of the video have a nuanced explanation. First of all Repsol isn’t so interested in destroying the Waorani’s though they are not the greatest priority either. Also, complying with reg’s is much cheaper than dealing with a spill, so Repsol doesn’t seek to propagate such results. Finally, there are many competing evils of which Repsol is a lesser one perhaps, such as FARC who operate in the area, and land colonizers who yield worse environmental destruction. Not to defend Repsol by any means.

2. The Field Museum: Amazonian Conservation

This video shows in an excellent way the behind-the-scenes of conservation. It is encouraging and interesting to see how the narrative now includes social science as one of the concerns, and integrates the local population in conservation efforts. I say interesting since many environmental conservation efforts disregard the human dimension entirely. Recently a Galapagos Park Ranger told me National Geographic had refused to film a program on the islands since the Park required the local population to be integrated in the documentary. “Pure Nature” was the standard sought after. In this documentary, still, it seems that the human concern serves the purpose of a greater environmental benefit; but to see that humans have a purpose, albeit instrumental, is already something. One must wonder what the natives are thinking, about these white people who travel so far and spend so much time to focus on plants and animals, but not really to help them, the local people. I wonder what they think? It also contrasts with the opposite position, of the missionaries of the old days, who travelled thus far to seek the people entirely. Are conservationists from the Field Museum the “new missionaries” of the causes for the 21st century?

Desire and the ways to knowing God: Benedict XVI’s Paths to Faith

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent catechesis on faith have been illuminating some interesting aspects related to creation and the environment. A few weeks ago he spoke of science as a path to faith. Recently he has spoken of another path, related to creation, which can also lead us to faith: a healthy human desire. This was the theme of a recent Catechesis on faith. Here he speaks of how human beings are constant seekers, and their desire leads them to search, while never being fully satisfied. We are seekers of the Absolute. And desire well understood, leads to God and should be promoted: “Educating individuals from an early age to savor the true joys, in all areas of life – family, friendship, solidarity with those who suffer, self-denial to serve others, love for knowledge, for art, for the beauties of nature -, all this means exercising that inner taste and producing effective antibodies against the trivialization and flattening prevailing today. Adults, too, need to rediscover these joys, to desire true realities, purifying themselves from the mediocrity in which they find themselves entangled. It will then become easier to drop or reject everything that, while seemingly attractive, instead proves insipid, a source of addiction and not of freedom. And this will cause that desire for God of which we are speaking to emerge.”  The love for knowledge and beauties of nature speak to how the environmental interest of many people, and science and learning can lead to God. We must therefore be open to the dynamic of desire in the human person (1), and this opens both believers and non-believers towards a true fraternity in the quest for God (2).

1)The human experience of love has within it a dynamism that leads beyond oneself, it is an experience of a good that leads one to go out of oneself and to find oneself before the mystery surrounding the whole of existence. Similar considerations could also be made with regard to other human experiences, such as friendship, the experience of beauty, the love of knowledge: every good experienced by man reaches out into the mystery surrounding man himself; every desire that arises within the human heart echoes a fundamental desire that is never fully satisfied. Certainly, from that deep desire, which also hides something enigmatic, one cannot arrive directly at faith. Man, after all, knows well what does not satisfy him, but he cannot guess or define what would make him experience that happiness the nostalgia of which he carries in his heart. It is not possible to know God on the basis of man’s desire alone. From this point of view, the mystery remains: man is the seeker of the Absolute, a seeker who advances through small and uncertain steps.

2) In this pilgrimage, let us feel ourselves the brothers of all men, the travelling companions even of those who do not believe, of those who are seeking, of those who allow themselves to be questioned with sincerity by the dynamism of their desire for truth and goodness. Let us pray, in this Year of Faith, that God show his face to all those who seek him with a sincere heart.

In the following weeks Catechesis the Pope emphasized this human fraternity and the attitude of “gentleness and reverence” to atheism, to scepticism, to indifference to the vertical dimension, in order that the people of our time may continue to ponder on the existence of God and take paths that lead to him.” And he proposed three avenues in which people may come to know God: “I want to point out several paths that derive both from natural reflection and from the power of faith itself. I would like to sum them up very briefly in three words: the world, man, faith.” Clearly, the first one of these contains many elements pertinent to creation. The Pope called for an “attentive contemplation of creation” as an important path to faith in our times.

The first word: the world. St Augustine, who spent much of his life seeking the Truth and was grasped by the Truth, wrote a very beautiful and famous passage in which he said: “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky… question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful’. Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?” (Sermo 241, 2: pl 38, 1134).

I think we should recover — and enable people today to recover — our capacity for contemplating creation, its beauty and its structure. The world is not a shapeless mass of magma, but the better we know it and the better we discover its marvellous mechanisms the more clearly we can see a plan, we see that there is a creative intelligence. Albert Einstein said that in natural law is revealed “an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” (The World As I See It, 1949). Consequently a first path that leads to the discovery of God is an attentive contemplation of creation.

Changing our Lifestyle: Wendell Berry, Catholics and Capitalists

Dr. Christopher Shannon has an excellent article in Crisis Magazine which begins with a reflection on Wendell Berry’s vision of America in a recent lecture. Berry is well known for his “his commitment to the virtues of family farming and small-scale community life”, but indeed what is at stake seems to be a much greater question of two different views of and for America: The “struggle between “boomers” and “stickers”—between those who see life in terms of boundless opportunities for self-advancement and those who seek to live within natural limits geared toward maintaining stability and continuity in place over time.  Berry clearly and defiantly stands with the stickers”. Shannon raises the question of what the Catholic position on the matter should be, and he too seems to side with Berry and stickers. Furthermore, he challenges other Catholic authors such as Matthew J. Franck who attacked Berry for this address on First Things, and more notably Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

This debate reminds me of David Schindler’s critique of certain ecclesiologically mistaken positions that gave way to a certain ‘boomer’ mentality. Here too, the environment and ecology became the playing field on which underlying ideologies came into conflict. Indeed, the view one has on creation and our relationship to it allows more fundamental issues to surface. In that sense I am not surprised as Shannon on how “Berry clearly touched a raw nerve (or the guilty conscience) of a certain kind of Catholic and a certain kind of American.  Where one stands on Berry says a lot about where one stands on Catholicism and America, or more precisely on Catholicism in America.”  At the end of the day a very serious question is raised here, which is what vision of America can be truly Catholic. Let us turn to Schindler critique of Richard Neuhaus and neo-conservative positions on the environment, which shed a light on the Berry debate raised by Shannon. Below a quote by John Paul II and then Rev. Richard John Neuhaus’ take on it:

This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor—be they individuals or nations—need to be provided with realistic opportunities. Creating such conditions calls for a concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort which involves sacrificing the positions of income and of power enjoyed by the more developed economies. This may mean making important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources.

(Centesimus Annus 52, emphasis in original)

Rev. Neuhaus responds to this call as follows: “Talk about changing established life-styles in order to achieve justice or sustain the planet is a commonplace in political rhetorics…. The single use of that language in Centesimus Annus does tend to stick out…. It has, in short, all the appearances of being a throwaway line. Should we all consume less, and, if so, of what? And how will that help include the poor within the circle of production and exchange?…. The sentence about ‘changing established life-styles’ is most likely a vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text.”

This is quoted in Schindler’s “Heart of the World, Center of the Church” (p. 126), but also in other sources such as this blog, which also engages the issue. Schindler first of all makes the obvious point about changing lifestyles was not mistaken, and affirms its centrality in several documents such as Redemptoris Missio, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Populorum Progressio. It is also mentioned clearly in John Paul II’s 1990 (a) and Benedict XVI’s 2010 (b) Address for the World Day of Peace:

(a) 13. Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause. As I have already stated, the seriousness of the ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis. If an appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is lacking, we will also lose interest in others and in the earth itself. Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.

(b)11. It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”.[26] Education for peace must increasingly begin with far-reaching decisions on the part of individuals, families, communities and states. We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment. This responsibility knows no boundaries. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity it is important for everyone to be committed at his or her proper level, working to overcome the prevalence of particular interests.

These affirmations are pretty compelling, but more worthy of note is Schindler’s underlying critique of how someone could conceive the primacy of “booming” and the full-out dismissal of the call to “stick”. The point Schindler makes, of which the environmental debate is only one manifestation, is that there is a misunderstanding of what is most important: the identity of God, the Church, of the human person. For Schindler, following the communio tradition of Conciliar Fathers such as de Lubac, Danielou and Ratzinger among others, the hermeneutical key for understanding reality is the Trinitarian God, which places the primacy of existence on gift and receptivity, before action and creativity. There is room, in the Church and in each person for both “sticking” and “booming” or to put it into Schindler’s language, for “being” and “doing”. Both dimensions fulfill the human person and conform our reality, yet there is an order, and an action well done receives its guidance from the “being” that precedes the action. In other words, all “booming” must come from a well integrated and primary “sticking”, otherwise the booming will be disordered and dispersed. Schindler says the wrong interpretation of the place and meaning of human creativity and agency gives rise to a mistaken comprehension of the importance of economic and social development. 

This is perhaps what Berry intended when he proposed a culture of ‘stickers’: family, community, unity. His agrarian vision seems like a concretion of the call to change lifestyles, and in that he is very Catholic. Nonetheless, I think the vision of how “sticking” takes place, of how to give primacy to being, to family and unity is something that can happen in many settings, not only small community farming. Certainly, an agrarian setting , rather than booming and bustling urban centers, may be more favorable for “sticking”, but it doesn’t guarantee it nor is it a necessary condition for sticking. Schindler too sees the main issue at stake not only a misconception of the identity of being (receptivity rather than autonomy) but also the priority and hierarchy of human action. There is an inherent relationship between “being” and “doing”, and in fact our being is fulfilled, in part, by our doing in this world. This is why Shannon is correct to conclude: “Our immigrant ancestors… boomed in order to stick.” But perhaps this may reflect a certain ‘Freudian slip’ so to speak, and booming has constructed a nation whose original intention was to stick. What is true nonetheless, is the necessary relationship between being and doing, we need both, but “sticking” comes first.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Jesus resolved this dilemma long ago: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (Jn 15, 5). Pope Benedict XVI has a reflection on this passage, delivered in a Lectio Divina to the Seminarians of Rome in 2010, which is pertinent to the debate at hand, and which in my very personal opinion is the most beautiful spiritual reflection of his pontificate. The Pope clearly indicates that “abiding” or “remaining” comes first and producing fruit and observing commandments, everything else really, comes later. The Pope emphasizes the order and hierarchy of activities, and abiding in Him, comes first. Here the risk, outlines the Pope, of observing before abiding becomes a fall into moralism – a formal obedience and legalistic approach to morality. As is well known, and exemplified in the recent political campaign, moralism is another trait we find in the modern world. Aristotle, who outlined an order in human activity: theoria, praxis and poiesis which very roughly translates into knowing (the truth), doing (morality) and making (things). A disorder in theoria will lead to consequences in praxis and morality, hence the Pope’s point, and also in all poieses, which pertains to the realm of “booming”. We must then “stick” first, hold fast and abide in the Truth, and from there all behavior and all booming will find their correct coordinates. Below the Pope’s own words on Jn 15:

The first words are: “Abide in me… in my love”…. “abide”, and “observe my commandments”. “Observe” only comes second. “Abide” comes first, at the ontological level, namely that we are united with him, he has given himself to us beforehand and has already given us his love, the fruit. It is not we who must produce the abundant fruit; Christianity is not moralism, it is not we who must do all that God expects of the world but we must first of all enter this ontological mystery: God gives himself. His being, his loving, precedes our action and, in the context of his Body, in the context of being in him, being identified with him and ennobled with his Blood, we too can act with Christ. 

Ethics are a consequence of being: first the Lord gives us new life, this is the great gift. Being precedes action and from this being action then follows, as an organic reality, for we can also be what we are in our activity. Let us thus thank the Lord for he has removed us from pure moralism; we cannot obey a prescribed law but must only act in accordance with our new identity. Therefore it is no longer obedience, an external thing, but rather the fulfilment of the gift of new life.

Science and God: Benedict XVI’s Paths to Faith

Since the beginning of the year of faith, Pope Benedict XVI has been giving some masterful teachings on faith, and many of them tie in with environmental themes. Last week he raised the question of whether faith still made sense in a world of technology and science:

Does faith still make sense in a world in which science and technology have unfolded horizons unthinkable until a short time ago?… Today, together with so many signs of goodness a certain spiritual desert is also developing around us. At times we get sort of feeling, from certain events we have news of every day, that the world is not moving towards the building of a more brotherly and peaceful community; the very ideas of progress and wellbeing have shadows too. Despite the greatness of scientific discoveries and technological triumphs, human beings today do not seem to have become truly any freer or more human; so many forms of exploitation, manipulation, violence, abuse and injustice endure…. A certain kind of culture, moreover, has taught people to move solely within the horizon of things, of the feasible, to believe only in what they can see and touch with their own hands. Yet the number of those who feel bewildered is also growing, and search to go beyond a merely horizontal view of reality they are prepared to believe in everything and nothing.”

The spiritual desert that the world find itself, Pope Benedict has developed more fully here and here. The point on the poverty of relying on science and technology alone and how it can lead to believing in “everything and nothing” is quite interesting. This was expanded upon in another recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Here he spoke on the necessity of faith for scientific investigation and vice versa, and how “Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny”. The theme of the cooperation between faith and reason is central to the Pope’s approach, and is constantly expressed throughout his life (here, here and here). Below his explanation on how complexity in science ties in with philosophy and theology:

Such a vision has fruitful points of contact with the view of the universe taken by Christian philosophy and theology, with its notion of participated being, in which each individual creature, possessed of its proper perfection, also shares in a specific nature and this within an ordered cosmos originating in God’s creative Word. It is precisely this inbuilt “logical” and “analogical” organization of nature that encourages scientific research and draws the human mind to discover the horizontal co-participation between beings and the transcendental participation by the First Being. The universe is not chaos or the result of chaos, rather, it appears ever more clearly as an ordered complexity which allows us to rise, through comparative analysis and analogy, from specialization towards a more universalizing viewpoint and vice versa. While the very first moments of the cosmos and life still elude scientific observation, science nonetheless finds itself pondering a vast set of processes which reveals an order of evident constants and correspondences and serves as essential components of permanent creation.

It is within this broader context that I would note how fruitful the use of analogy has proved for philosophy and theology, not simply as a tool of horizontal analysis of nature’s realities, but also as a stimulus to creative thinking on a higher transcendental plane. Precisely because of the notion of creation, Christian thought has employed analogy not only for the investigation of worldly realities, but also as a means of rising from the created order to the contemplation of its Creator, with due regard for the principle that God’s transcendence implies that every similarity with his creatures necessarily entails a greater dissimilarity: whereas the structure of the creature is that of being a being by participation, that of God is that of being a being by essence, or Esse subsistens. In the great human enterprise of striving to unlock the mysteries of man and the universe, I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny.

The nature of nature in Michelangelo

Recently Pope Benedict XVI gave a homily on occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Sistine Chapel. He touched, guided by Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling, on a theme very dear to him: the purpose of creation. The idea that nature has a purpose, that creation is not a fruit of chance or only blind evolution has always been central in Ratzinger’s thought. You can see some examples here and here.

In his homily he had the following thing to say:

…the Sistine Chapel tells this story of light, of deliverance, of salvation; it speaks of God’s relationship with humanity. With the brilliant ceiling of Michelangelo, our gaze is driven to go over the message of the prophets, to which are added the pagan Sibyls in expectation of Christ, to the beginning of everything: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1). With unique expressive intensity, the great artist designed the Creator God, his action, his power, to say with evidence that the world is not produced from darkness, by chance, by the absurd, but derives from intelligence, from a liberty, from a supreme act of Love. In that meeting between the finger of God and that of man, we perceive the contact between heaven and earth; in Adam God enters into a new relationship with his creation, man is in direct relationship with Him, is called by Him, is in the image and likeness of God.

It is also curious to me how he image of the fingers of God and Adam is apparently so welcomed and popular, everywhere really. Teh Sistine Chapel is overcrowded, and certainly not by Christians alone.  The images create no resistance at all. Yet the story it tells, that mankind has a privileged position in creation, of great favor and responsibility too, seems to be counter cultural in some way. Perhaps beauty is able to disarm intellectual mistrust and ideology.

Hurricane Sandy in Climate Change Context

There have been a few recent claims that Hurricane Sandy, which has ravaged the East Coast of the US this week, is a consequence of climate change. The most notorious of these claims, though not surprising, has been Al Gore. The news media have reported this widely here, and here for example. However, a close and cold look at Gore’s claims shows that his position is unsubstantiated by evidence. If Sandy has been caused by climate change, then Gore’s arguments do not serve as an explanation for it. Here a few key passages from his statement:

As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. Hurricane Sandy, and the Nashville flood, were reminders of just that. Other climate-related catastrophes around the world have carried the same message to hundreds of millions.

Sandy was also affected by other symptoms of the climate crisis. As the hurricane approached the East Coast, it gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters. At the same time, Sandy’s storm surge was worsened by a century of sea level rise. Scientists tell us that if we do not reduce our emissions, these problems will only grow worse.

Well, there is some historical evidence that suggests otherwise. Roger Pielke Jr. has a few posts on his blog and graphs, that normalize the storm damage and compare storms in the last century. You can see his full posts here, here and here. And the graphs below:

STORM NAME LANDFALL DATE DAMAGE RANK DAMAGE ($ 2012)
Great Miami Sep 18,1926 1 180,220,000,000
Galveston Sep 08,1900 2 105,570,000,000
Galveston Aug 17,1915 3 84,910,000,000
Katrina Aug 29,2005 4 84,620,000,000
Andrew Aug 24,1992 5 64,410,000,000
Storm 11 in 1944 Oct 19,1944 6 53,940,000,000
Donna Sep 10,1960 7 49,810,000,000
New England Sep 21,1938 8 46,840,000,000
Lake Okeechobee Sep 16,1928 9 44,890,000,000
Wilma Oct 24,2005 10 25,960,000,000
Hazel Oct 18,1954 11 24,260,000,000
Diane Aug 19,1955 12 24,110,000,000
Camille Aug 17,1969 13 23,040,000,000
Charley Aug 13,2004 14 20,380,000,000
Ike Sep 13,2008 15 20,370,000,000
Hugo Sep 21,1989 16 20,020,000,000
Carol Aug 31,1954 17 19,290,000,000
Agnes Jun 22,1972 18 19,010,000,000
Ivan Sep 16,2004 19 18,590,000,000
Storm 2 in 1949 Aug 26,1949 20 18,510,000,000

While it will be some time until we have apples to apples estimates from Sandy, the current estimates of $20 billion would place Sandy at #17 all time out of 242 loss-producng storms 1900 to present (in the top 10%). If the damage gets to $30 billion it would crack the top 10 and (top 5%). Right now it seems unlikely that Sandy will climb any higher on the table. (Note that inland flood damage is not included in the tabulations above.)