Is it better to be lucky or good? In the case of climate change, President Obama may want to start investing in horseshoes and four-leaf clovers. The widespread attention to Hurricane Sandy, just a week before the election, has finally injected this vital issue into the national dialogue. Even Businessweek is declaring: "It's Global Warming, Stupid."
For those concerned with climate change, this is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing that climate change is back on the agenda. As was widely noted, this was the first time in several decades that climate change was not even discussed at the debates. Despite continued scientific findings revealing the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change has been seen as a losing political issue.
But this surge of interest may also prove to be a curse. The links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change are indirect at best (for more on this, see good summaries here and here). We expect climate change to make events like this more common, but there are grave dangers in attributing single events to long-term changes in planetary systems. Misrepresenting the realities of climate change, as some like Roger Pielke Jr. have argued, risks damaging the long-term prospects for collective action.
Though it may seem callous to discuss anyone benefiting from a natural disaster that has killed dozens and caused billions of dollars of damage, Obama's political prospects will, no doubt, gain in the short-term from this renewed interest in climate change. Mayor Bloomberg's post-Sandy endorsement of Obama is one example. Sandy also draws attention to Mitt Romney's flippant remark about not caring about sea levels rising at the Republican Convention as well as his proposals to get rid of FEMA. Even if wide swaths of America did not, Obama seems to have caught a break.
It's about time, his energy policy advisers are likely exclaiming. Unexpected events have not been good to Obama in the past. When he came into office, he sought to push a bipartisan energy deal that would trade support for offshore oil drilling and nuclear power in exchange for support for renewable energy system development. Though many environmentalists (including myself) bristled at his support for offshore oil and atomic energy, it was possible to see it as a necessary cost of doing business. In most eras, the art of politics has been the art of compromise.
But global events forestalled any such deal being made. The first was the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. This took away one of Obama's key bargaining chips. Less than a year later, the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima took away another trade asset. In the immediate aftermath of such highly visible disasters, the President could no longer use either of his intended compromises to pursue a renewable energy deal. Luck was not on his side.
Will Sandy balance the scorecard? It's far too early to tell, though there is little reason to think this will be the case. We have not seen structural changes resulting from previous disasters including Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, or Fukushima. There is no immediate evidence to suggest that Sandy will lead to a long-term shift in our climate conversations.
Yet any bounce for Obama due to perceived linkages between Sandy and climate change is likely a good thing for environmentalists, particularly given that it is coming so close to the election. There is little that would be more damaging to the prospects for climate action than a Romney administration backed by a Republican House. With four more years in office, Obama will have several additional opportunities to push for a comprehensive deal on energy and climate.
There remains a danger that talking about climate change because of Sandy will backfire in the long-term. But after a string of bad breaks, Obama and his advisers must be feeling that it's better to be lucky than good.