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Winds of Change

News & Features | November 27, 2012

The Internet was flooded with images of New York City streets completely underwater. The subways were subjected to more damage than they have ever seen in their 108 years of operation and closed completely for one of the first times in history. Hurricane-force winds swept the east coast and power outages shut down entire communities. Governments from Massachusetts to the Carolinas declared states of emergency. The rest of the country watched as Hurricane Sandy—occasionally referred to as the “Frankenstorm”—devastated much of the East Coast. And, for the first time in a while, people were scared. Here were the consequences of climate change that had been predicted. For the first time in a while, climate change once again seemed real.
“Global warming” was an important buzzword during the 2004 and 2008 elections. There was a lot of talk about clean energy and hybrid cars. However, during the 2012 election season it seemed as if climate change and the environment were non-issues. Over the course of the three presidential debates, climate change was not mentioned once and neither of the presidential candidates provided detailed plans regarding their climate change policies. President Obama mentioned “green jobs” on occasion, but the pundits and politicians were more concerned with the lagging economy and rampant political partisanship.

Yet the “Frankenstorm” appeared to have frightened people into changing dialogue. There is no conclusive evidence as to whether the storm was directly caused by climate change or not, but scientists point to rising sea levels and increased ocean temperatures that have resulted from human emissions of green house gases. Jonathan E. Kenny, a professor of chemistry at Tufts University, is a working member of the Tufts University Climate Change, Climate Justice Initiative and has spent time studying pollution in groundwater and calculating the effects of greenhouse gases on global climate. Kenny commented that he believes that Hurricane Sandy has significantly shifted dialogue regarding climate change in the legislative sector. “The first indication of this is the leadership of individual political leaders, such as Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, and Congressman Ed Markey in speaking out on the subject. Eventually this leadership will be taken into legislative halls as the people will demand that government must do a better job of protecting us from disasters.”

After Sandy left New York in the dark and with billions of dollars in damage, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who had previously stated that he would not endorse any candidate, and Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, both came out in favor of President Obama. Bloomberg stated that he believed the president was the best man to combat climate change and emphasized the importance the issue would have in our country’s future. In his third term as mayor of the country’s largest city, Bloomberg has considerable sway and his focus on climate change is an important indicator. If Bloomberg advocates for better climate change policy, it is likely that climate change will once again become a topic of discussion.

Similarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke about the need to contain the rising sea levels that contributed to Sandy’s power and devastation. The governor announced that New York City was considering a network of surge barriers and a levee system as a stop-gap measure, but emphasized that a long-term solution was needed: “Climate change is reality. Given the frequency of these extreme weather situations that we’ve had—and I believe that it’s an increasing frequency—for us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation [problem] and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be shortsighted.” This sentiment was echoed by many others across the country, including Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

While climate change is once again becoming a part of the dialogue, this does not mean it has gained enough traction to become a cornerstone issue. In an election year, it is hard to ignore the sluggish economy or a country deeply divided on how to deal with it. President Obama commented in his first press conference after the election and Sandy, “There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.” This begs the question: if and when will climate change become a priority?
Katie Segal, a co-director of the Tufts University Sustainability Collective, asserted that, although it is important that President Obama is once again discussing climate change through initiatives such as a carbon tax, it cannot be a second-string issue. She explained, “Yes, there are more imminent issues like the economy and job creation, but we must find a way to solve these problems concurrently.”

“I believe a shift in discussion is absolutely necessary,” stated Professor Kenny. “The moratorium on climate change during the recent presidential election was an insult to both our intelligence and our best interests. Unfortunately, leadership on this subject has been missing for so long that we need to focus both on prevention and adaptation. As predicted, the effects of climate change fall most heavily on those least equipped to deal with them, e.g., the homeless in New York in the aftermath of Sandy.” Kenny concluded: “Successful policy must be based on justice.”