Courtesy AP Photo/Sean Sweeney
Climate change has been MIA from the 2012 presidential election.
Those who believe in Acts of God might say that Hurricane Sandy was visited upon us to bring climate change into full relief, just in time for Election Day. Yesterday, in reaction to Sandy's widespread devastation, New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's been critical of both candidates, endorsed President Obama because of his faith in Obama's leadership on climate change. This, the first major entrée of climate change into the 2012 political discourse, just five days before Americans vote in the next President.
For the last several presidential elections, climate change has been an integral part of the dialogue. The topic's frame has evolved from the greenhouse effect to global warming to climate change, but it's been a significant theme. In fact, in the year leading up to the 2008 presidential election, both of our current presidential hopefuls talked about it actively. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama highlighted climate change's far reaching effects as "not just an economic issue or an environmental concern, this is a national security crisis." In 2007, in an interview with Katie Couric, Mitt Romney said, "I think the risks of climate change are real, and that you're seeing climate change, and I think human activity is contributing to it."
Yet four years later it's conspicuously absent from the 2012 presidential election and debates. It's such a glaring omission that it has its own Twitter hashtag, #climatesilence. Given the candidates' statements you might think it's because they agree and the debates have focused instead on the candidates' big differences. But the opposite's true; they don't agree. By 2011 Romney had flip-flopped saying, "We don't know what's causing climate change" and Obama was referring to climate change obliquely in broad and non-controversial terms in his "all of the above" energy strategy.
Where did climate change go? In 2007 the UN released an analysis of climate data by 30 nations' top scientists concluding the "unequivocal" warming of the climate system and substantiating evidence of human contribution to climate change. More than 97% of scientists worldwide agreed that climate changes are not attributable to natural swings in weather and are substantially caused by human activity. The political consensus followed the scientific consensus. But in four short years that political accord has been suffocated by a heavily funded, well organized, and brilliantly communicated strategic campaign. Its chief tactics: using incomplete science to create doubt that climate change is real and imposing massive Big Oil-, Coal- and Gas-backed pressure to block Cap-and-Trade carbon emission reduction legislation.
The science hasn't changed; in fact, evidence of manmade contributions to climate effects is even weightier. What's changed is the political will to stop burning fossil fuels. For simply supporting climate change's validity, Congressmen have become targets of special interest groups and lost their seats. During key votes and hearings, cowering policy makers have skirted the issue or cited specious science to justify bowing to political pressure. This misuse of science is a wholesale breach of the public trust.
Still, there have been three notable reminders of climate change leading up to the election. First, two years' worth of undeniable weather extremes - from record heat in the continental U.S. and attendant wildfires to the highest levels of Arctic ice melting to date to rising worldwide sea levels, including the California and Atlantic coasts. The second, 350.org's inimitable environmental advocate, Bill McKibben and his July Rolling Stone article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" and "Do the Math" tour. The third, a recent "PBS Election 2012 Special Presentation" of Frontline's, "Climate of Doubt." This riveting Frontline reveals this systematic campaign over the past few years to reverse the political consensus on climate change. Until now, none of these formidable influences brought climate change into this election process.
Both presidential candidates have avoided public discussion of climate change. Romney wants to elude exposure of his nomination-inspired flip-flop, potentially further eroding perceptions about his character. Obama has implied climate change in his energy frame, but tried to be centrist by supporting "all of the above," meaning oil and gas, plus solar, biofuels, nuclear, wind and fuel efficiency measures (thankfully coal isn't included because "clean coal" is an oxymoron). Just because the candidates wanted to evade the topic doesn't explain why no direct question about climate change surfaced during the presidential debates.
In his endorsement editorial, "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change" on Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg notes that the climate is changing; whether connected to climate change or not, two hurricanes have wreaked havoc on New York; and it's time for action. He compares the two presidential candidates' climate change positions:
One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.
Maybe this endorsement was simmering for Bloomberg and would have happened no matter what. Who knows? There's no upside to a hurricane that kills and injures people, demolishes buildings and infrastructure, and stalls commerce and travel. But maybe Sandy's devastation underscored our fragile dependency on this Earth and climate change's threat to that stasis. And maybe it compelled one of the country's smartest, most dedicated political leaders to bring human responsibility for climate change to the forefront of this election. If so, then maybe there's one good thing that came from Hurricane Sandy.