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The Path Forward on Climate Change: Sandy Is the Mandate

When the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy forced US presidential candidates to temporarily suspend their campaigns, one could be forgiven for thinking the superstorm was an act of a merciful God. But as we saw, Sandy had no mercy and we, the human race, are playing a central role in this unfolding climate drama. In the wake of Barack Obama’s decisive re-election, it’s time for him to vigorously address the most pressing issue of our time: climate disruption. Sandy is the mandate.

The election painted a picture of a country heavily divided, but on the issue of climate change, consensus is amazingly high. According to a poll from George Mason University and Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication, 70% of respondents accept the reality that global warming is real, a 13% leap from two and a half years earlier. For the first time since 2008, more than half of those polled (54%) say global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Extreme weather events, which have been spreading their meteorological misery across the US, are changing minds. Recently, nearly three in four surveyed noted global warming is influencing the weather. Despite decades of extremist head-in-the-sand denialism, a strong majority in the United States has come to its senses on the issue.

For those who still hadn’t accepted the reality of climate change, Sandy was a wakeup call. Others have called it a potential game-changer. Headlines at Bloomberg Businessweek boomed, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”. Romney’s flippant remarks about sea level rise became political liabilities, while Obama’s reasoned position on climate change earned him the public endorsement of New York’s flood-weary mayor Michael Bloomberg. Obama responded to Bloomberg’s public backing by saying “climate change is a threat to our children’s future” He echoed this in his re-election victory speech when he pined for an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

This “destructive power of a warming planet” doesn’t exactly need a whole lot more proof—the evidence is overwhelming. September marked the 331st consecutive month where global temperatures surpassed the twentieth-century average. The ten warmest years in the history of recoded temperatures all occurred since 1998. Extreme weather events are becoming the new normal. To be sure, we can’t pinpoint any single weather event on climate change. However, whipsaw weather is the signature effect of human-induced climate change. In other words, climate change loads the meteorological dice. Sure enough, as scientists have predicted, the planet has been hammered by Old Testament-style droughts, floods, and heat waves.

Sure, the climate change conversation in the Senate is perpetually smothered by climate cranks like Sen. James “Greatest Hoax Ever Perpetrated on the American People” Inhofe. And yes, the Republican-led House of Representatives remains locked in pre-1896 mode—the year Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published a paper noting the connection between CO2 levels and the Earth’s surface temperature. A national cap on carbon emissions may still beyond the reach of Congress, but the President still has many tools at his disposal.

Leveling the playing field for clean energy, by eliminating billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels, and investing in research and development can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, bring promising low carbon technologies to scale, and put Americans back to work. Regulating emissions from power plants and other major polluters and continuing to raise the bar on efficiency standards as the Administration did successfully with CAFÉ rules last summer, saves money, protects human health, and reduces emissions. Pulling the plug on fracking, tar sands pipelines, and other short-sighted fixes that feed America’s addiction to fossil fuels while undermining real efforts underway in cities, states, and regions across the country to forge a new energy future, is the least a President who purports to understand the threat of climate change can do.

British comedian John Oliver jokingly dubbed Hurricane Sandy a “Catastrotunity.” Indeed, Superstorm Sandy was a grim reminder of the perils of runaway climate change and the opportunities still before us to reign it in. Sure enough, disaster capitalists are moving in vulture-like to capitalize off the catastrophe. The Obama administration needs to use its political capital to move decisively while Sandy lingers in the public memory. Time to ditch the shameful strategy of sidestepping the climate issue, which reigned during Obama’s campaign. We can stack scientific pie charts—not to mention hurricane debris—to the sky, but now’s the time for action.

Kristen Sheeran

Kristen Sheeran

Kristen Sheeran is Director of Knowledge Systems at Ecotrust, and Executive Director and co-founder of Economics for Equity and Environment Network (E3), a national network of economists developing new arguments for environmental protection. Her research is focused on climate change, environmental policy, political economy, and development. She is co-author of the award-winning book Saving Kyoto (with Graciela Chichilnisky, New Holland, 2009) and has published numerous scholarly articles in Environmental and Resource Economics, Climatic Change, Ecological Economics, and other journals.

Jules Boykoff

Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. He is the author of "The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch US American Social Movements" (Routledge, 2006), and "Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States" (AK Press, 2007). Boykoff is a former professional soccer player who represented the US Olympic Team in international competition.

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