Once again extreme weather and its devastating impacts are dominating the headlines. Following the march of destruction, the tragic loss of human life and the billions of dollars in economic losses, our society must now face the numbing concept that we are witnessing the “new normal.”
The record breaking and devastating Hurricane Sandy, which gathered more adjectives and nicknames then any tropical cyclone I can remember – Frankenstorm, Perfect storm, Superstorm and October Surprise to name a few – has thrust the connection between global climate change and extreme weather back into the national spotlight and the public eye.
Just days before the election, Mayor Bloomberg’s surprise endorsement of President Obama has finally forced the issue of climate change into this year’s presidential election. But I won’t hold my breath that any real discussion of human-induced climate destabilization is about to take place, especially after we just wrapped up the first presidential debate series in 14 years to ignore the climate question. It has become quite clear that “Climate Silence” is the name of the game in this election cycle. Simply put, neither candidate nor political party has provided leadership commensurate with the scale and seriousness that the threat climate destabilization represents.
But let me be clear that elections do matter for extreme weather and our climate future. As Bloomberg pointed out in his endorsement, Mitt Romney was once a leader on this issue but has since sold his political soul to the fossil fuel lobby, even going as far as mocking President Obama’s efforts to “slow the rising seas [….] and heal the planet” during his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
However, President Obama has not shown the leadership many had hoped for on this issue either. I was in Copenhagen at the Climate summit in 2009 when he tried to salvage a deal on the world stage. But it went down hill from there: he failed to use the full force of his office to guide a federal climate bill through Congress but instead cut deals in support of nuclear power and offshore drilling, gaining nothing in return but empty promises from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and a Gulf of Mexico that was full of oil, compliments of BP.
Yet, Obama does seem to get the importance of climate change and, again as Bloomberg points out, he has taken notable steps with executive authority, e.g. raising mileage standards and increasing clean energy investment through the Stimulus. Has Obama used the bully pulpit to adequately address the climate crisis? No, but our Founding Fathers designed our system of government so that the Legislative Branch alone has the power to make laws. In 2009 Democratic leaders were only able to get a weak climate bill through the House of Representatives, and then they ran into the Filibuster Wall in Senate before oil-soaked money from the Koch brothers helped the Tea Party and climate deniers to highjack the Republican party and regain the leadership of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections. The political tide has been strongly running against any significant federal action to address climate until the record storm surge from Sandy quite literally flooded the national debate this week.
Should we be hopeful that the devastation that blew in with Sandy will definitively change the narrative of the debate on climate? I’m afraid we’re not there yet. The corrupting alignment between the financial interests of the fossil fuel companies, some of the most powerful institutions the world has ever know, and the radical ideology of the antigovernment libertarians has taken over the Republican Party, ousting any moderation or statesmanship. Even thoughtful, moderate Republican commentators like David Brooks have lost their bearings on the climate issue. In a recent editorial, Brooks blamed Al Gore and Obama for the lack of bi-partisan support for addressing climate change. This simplistic blame shift was breathtaking in its complete failure to understand history, as economic markets such as cap and trade that were once a key Republican core value have been demonized and common sense has been left at the wayside.
So where do we go from here? Do whatever you can to help the victims of Sandy, people who are in need. If you have not already, cast your vote to reject anti-science climate change deniers. Be informed, speak out against ignorance masquerading as informed dialogue. Support organizations in civil society, such as Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, that are raising the profile of these issues and let’s demand that the new administration take action equal to the scale of the problem so we can create a flood of awareness and action that will drowned out by the short-sighted self-interest that has delayed urgent and necessary action. Climate destabilization does not have to be the new normal.