Despite Superstorm Sandy, American public left with only perceived notions of presidential candidates’ climate stance

Bellona/Charles Digges

Publish date: November 1, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK CITY – With less that a week to go before American’s go to the polls, and continued silence from both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the subject of climate change, mother nature itself raised issue as Superstorm Sandy ripped the US eastern seaboard earlier this week.

Sandy, say many meteorologists, was a previously unseen phenomenon – a dual hurricane and winter storm, and it blasted the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and Washington DC, killing 74 as of Thursday. The storm itself stretched from the Caribbean to Canada and from the Atlantic to Chicago.

The storm also caused electrical outages in more than 8.2 million households in 17 states as far west as Michigan, and some 2 million of those were in New York alone, whose subway system was flooded. Preliminary estimates have put the dollar value of the storm’s damage – which hit the US’s most populous area – at $30-40 billion and others even higher.

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Until recently, climate scientists were careful not to attribute any single weather event to global climate change. But, in the last couple of days, a number of scientists have filed Twitter posts that essentially say, “We told you so.” For years, they have described what the effects of global warming would look like; this year, many of them are saying, “This is it.”

In fact, the issue of climate change has not raised once, even  in a series of three televised presidential debates between the candidates – the first time the subject has gone unmentioned in presidential debates since 1988.

Many observers therefore saw the freak storm – falling well out of hurricane season and combining with a cold front from the North – as a prime opportunity for Obama to capitalize on the issue of climate change. But they remained disappointed.

Candidates climate positions still expressed as jokes

Obama did cancel his campaign appearances to coordinate emergency efforts with governors of affected states, tour damaged areas and mobilize aid and shelter – perhaps the most canny campaigning he could do, though the issue of climate change did not appear in any addressed he made.

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Meanwhile, the US Twittersphere was abuzz with supposed advice from Mitt Romney, saying those in Sandy’s path  “should head to their second or third home to safety.” The Tweet ultimately bore out to be false.

Still, the joke was telling: In the absence of any real dialogue in the presidential campaign about climate change, several news websites ran the fake Romney tweet as true, proving the US public has only a perceived notion of where the candidates stand on the issue.

Climate experts: Sandy a preview of future weather

After the firestorms that swept the US’s West amid a merciless drought and the killer tornadoes and freak storms that battered the US Midwest, South and East Coast, climate change experts have said Sandy – known also as Frankenstorm – a vivid picture of things to come as climate conditions continue to deteriorate.

And while the rest of the world long ago moved beyond asking if climate change is real to accepting it as a fact, the United States has stalled in debate.

Romney leads a party in which a majority believes that climate change is a hoax and the rest – including Romney – avoid talking about the issue, lest they be seen as anti-capitalist, tree hugging granola eaters. Obama could speak to the issue if he wished, but he avoids it too, perhaps not wanting to give the right-wingers another reason to accuse him of plotting against America.

He therefore seems to be leaving the climate change rhetoric to other supporters of his campaign.

Former President Bill Clinton, in a campaign swing supporting Obama through Minnesota Tuesday broke that silence and piled Sandy’s rubble on the Republican challenger’s head.

Zeroing in on Romney’s now-famous mockery of Obama at the Republican National Convention, where he used climate change as a laugh line during his nomination acceptance speech, Clinton, a resident of New York, attacked Romney.

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Clinton and Gore makes climate case for Obama

“He ridiculed the president for his efforts to fight global warming in economically beneficial ways. He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to turn back the seas,'” Clinton told the rally. “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could’ve done that yesterday.”

He went on to argue the local leaders from both parties were already ahead of Romney and Republicans in Congress in engaging with the issue. Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, and Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, have both cited Sandy as evidence of climate change.

“All up and down the east coast, there are mayors, many of them Republicans, who are being told, ‘You’ve got to move these houses back away from the ocean. You’ve got to lift them up. Climate change is going to raise the water levels on a permanent basis. If you want your town insured, you have to do this,'” Clinton said.

Former Clinton Vice President and Nobel Prize winning climate campaigner Al Gore struck a similar chord in a statement on his website, and called for Sandy to serve as a brutal wakeup call to the realities of climate change.

“For many, Hurricane Sandy may prove to be a similar event: a time when the climate crisis – which is often sequestered to the far reaches of our everyday awareness became a reality,” Gore wrote.

“Hurricane Sandy is a disturbing sign of things to come. We must heed this warning and act quickly to solve the climate crisis. Dirty energy makes dirty weather.”

Obama and Romney have made an almost studied avoidance of mentioning climate change during the presidential campaign, frustrating many of their constituents and prompting several environmental groups in the US to circulate petitions for debate moderators to demand clear answers on the candidates’ stances on the issue.

Environmental campaigners – who saw Obama rise to the presidency in 2009 on promises of addressing global climate change – say this year’s heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and now Sandy, provide ample evidence of climate change and the need for urgent action.

Public ahead of politicians on climate change

“Climate change used to be a science of projection. Now it is a science of attribution,” Angela Anderson, climate and energy director for the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists told the Guardian newspaper. She argued the public was ahead of political leaders in engaging with the topic.

“People are beginning to connect extreme weather events to climate change more and more at the same moment that there is this deafening silence, so that is incredibly disappointing.”

Hundreds of studies have linked the warming atmosphere and oceans to stronger Atlantic storms – though scientists balk at attributing a single severe storm such as Sandy to climate change – though warn many more like it are on the way.

“The terrifying truth is that America faces a future full of Frankenstorms,” said Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Centre for Biological Diversity. “Climate change raises sea levels and super-sizes storms. The threat of killer winds and crushing storm surges will grow by the year unless we get serious about tackling greenhouse gas pollution.”

In New York City itself, the most dangerous element in the aftermath of the storm are the floodwaters itself, which ABC television has reported contain lethal bacteria such as E Coli and coliform, as well as chemicals ranging from gasoline to heating fuel – to say nothing of millions of dead rats.

New Yorkers by Thursday were being urged to boil tap water – where it is available – to kill bacteria stirred up by Sandy.