WASHINGTON -- We interrupt this presidential campaign to bring you a disturbing special report from the future. It's called Lower Manhattan.
And now it is time for a second Manhattan Project.
In their most fanciful daydreams, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda dinner guests could not have imagined what Hurricane Sandy did to the center of global commerce and secular Western creativity: Stock market closed; subways flooded; Con Ed immobilized; ghost towns in the Village, SoHo, the Battery and elsewhere; damage estimates rising in the tens of billions of dollars.
In this last week of the campaign, the politics of the moment have collided with the politics of the future, of the planet and of the human race -- or at least that part of it within tidal distance of sea level.
Everyone says that the 2012 campaign is only about jobs and the economy, and they are right, according to the national polls, the debates, and the flow of television advertising and stump speeches. But Lower Manhattan is a vivid reminder that it is also worth examining who has said what, and who is likely to do what, to address climate change. In the face of the most severe flood in New York history, even Rush Limbaugh should find that hard to discount.
Ironically, New York was founded by the Dutch, the world's leading experts on keeping the sea at bay the only way it's possible to do: through collective effort and the will and determination of the entire country.
In an interview several months ago, President Barack Obama said that, if reelected, he wanted to take on the challenge of climate change more directly. Mitt Romney and other mocked him for what they regarded as his (literally) head-in-the-clouds goal.
But monstrous storms such as Sandy, most climate experts say, are a sign of things to come as the planet becomes more meteorologically bipolar and tempestuous. And what are we supposed to do about it?
Most climate scientists agree that global temperatures are rising along with sea levels, and most, though not all, agree that our reliance on the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels is one reason.
Accepting that argument, the president has pursued what he regards as a balanced approach: encouraging the discovery and use of domestic natural gas (including by fracking); keeping his distance from hard-line activists who want to limit or even eliminate strip-mining in Appalachia; accepting the idea that there is such a thing as "clean coal" technology; but also investing heavily in low-carbon technologies such as wind and solar.
Granted, the solar program is a mess, in part because it was poorly administered (and the GOP would say, corruptly so), but also because the Chinese countered by cheaply mass-producing older technology to undercut the market in the U.S. and globally. The president and his supporters still insist that he has the right idea: While the first Manhattan Project harnessed a form of energy to win a war against fascism, now it's time to find other sources of energy to win the war against the depredations of climate change.
Where is Romney on this? Once upon a time, as governor of Massachusetts, he was a standard-issue moderate Republican on environmental issues -- which is to say, he was open to using government to address problems. He was skeptical of coal, for example.
No more. Romney's campaign against Obama is based on the notion that federal action is not only a waste of money but strangling. The notion of communal effort led by Washington to attack a problem -- even an existential one -- is foreign to him, or so he says.
And his energy platform is straight out of the Bush-Cheney playbook, which focuses almost entirely on drilling, digging and burning. It's popular and, in the short term, expedient. We need cheap energy now, and we need jobs now, and one generally helps the other. In a period of slow recovery, it makes sense.
Unless you are in Lower Manhattan.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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