Sandy Ends the Silence

Even if politicians ignore climate change, the rest of us can't

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Topos Graphics for TIME

There are still a few Lance Armstrong deniers who don’t accept the overwhelming evidence that he used performance-enhancing drugs. And even rational people can’t say for sure that doping was the reason he won any particular Tour de France; it’s at least possible that he could have won some of those races clean. But it’s no longer controversial to suggest that performance-enhancing drugs had something to do with his victories. They do, after all, enhance performance.

There ought to be a similar consensus that global warming had something to do with Hurricane Sandy. The science of climate change is even more overwhelming than the case against Armstrong, and while the links to extreme weather are more complex, warmer seas and warmer air do produce nastier storms. To paraphrase Grist eco-journalist David Roberts, aging may not be the precise cause of your aching knee, but that kind of thing happens when you age. Hurricane Sandy — like this year’s historic heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., not to mention an unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic — is the kind of thing that happens when you broil the planet with fossil fuels.

Before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the issue in his post-Sandy endorsement of President Obama, most of the political discussion about climate was about the lack of political discussion about climate. Mitt Romney never mentioned it except to mock Obama’s pledge to slow the rise of the oceans, and Obama rarely mentioned it except to mock Romney’s antiscientific mockery. For the first time since 1984, the topic didn’t come up during a presidential debate; moderator Candy Crowley later said she considered a question for “you climate-change people” but ditched it because “we knew that the economy was still the main thing.”

Sandy was a blunt reminder that the technical term for people affected by climate change is people. It’s an environmental issue, a security issue and, yes, an economic issue, as Sandy-stranded urbanites and drought-stricken farmers have learned the hard way. The oceans are expected to rise at least another foot (30 cm) by 2100 and will rise much more if the world can’t make a quick transition from fossil fuels. That has all kinds of disastrous implications for coastal communities and food supplies and wildlife and human life. But as Al Gore says, if denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, despair ain’t just a tire in the trunk. Activists have been so busy warning about climate science and griping about climate silence that they’ve ignored the tremendous climate progress the U.S. has made under Obama. His strict new fuel-efficiency rules for cars and trucks should reduce carbon emissions by 6 billion metric tons by 2025, which would be like wiping out an entire year’s worth of emissions. His stimulus bill poured an astonishing $90 billion into clean energy, doubling wind power, increasing solar power 1,000%, greening factories and government buildings and more than 1 million homes and jump-starting a smart grid and electric vehicles and blue-sky research into the planet-saving technologies of tomorrow. U.S. emissions are now falling even though the economy is growing.

The U.S. still needs some kind of price on carbon to make dirty energy pay for its pollution. It needs to eliminate archaic subsidies for fossil fuels. It needs to promote less exurban sprawl and long-haul trucking and more telecommuting, carpooling and trains. And it needs the Republican Party to return to its relative sanity of 2008, when its presidential candidate (and his Alaskan running mate) supported a cap-and-trade regime to slash emissions.

But the U.S. has quietly begun its transition to a low-carbon economy. Sandy could be the moment that accelerated the transition, the moment that America dropped its Lance Armstrong attitude toward the climate. The alternate future looks like Sandy on steroids.