As Hurricane Sandy thrashes the northeastern part of the United States, the connection between climate change and this extreme weather must be made. That connection must involve a reflection, especially one on the politics of the present that have only intensified the impact of climate change.
Both President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney are horrendous when it comes to the climate. They have both seemingly adopted a code of silence while on the campaign trail to not discuss the environment, science and record-breaking weather that demand a response beyond empty platitudes. Bill McKibben commented after one of the Obama-Romney debates, “I think I missed the part where they discussed the Arctic melting.”
Romney has mocked acknowledgments of climate change by President Obama. At the Republican National Convention, he said to an audience that laughed, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” He, like a number of Republican politicians who doubt the science of climate change, treat science as if it is something one can believe or not believe in like religion.
Obama Has Presented Himself as Someone on Side of Environmental Science
That does not make Obama any more redeemable. While on the campaign trail in 2008, he positioned himself as someone who was on the side of scientists and activists willing to confront climate change.
ScienceDebate2008.com posed a question to Obama:
Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?
There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively. First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. With the right incentives, I’m convinced that American ingenuity can do this, and in the process make American businesses more productive, create jobs, and make America’s buildings and vehicles safer and more attractive. This is a global problem. U.S. leadership is essential but solutions will require contributions from all parts of the world—particularly the rest of the world’s major emitters: China, Europe, and India.
The answer was not one of a tree-hugger environmentalist. It was in line with what a moderate Republican might have said. In fact, in the Obama-Romney debates Obama said to Romney, “Cap and trade was originally proposed by conservatives and Republicans as a market-based solution to solving environmental problems. The first president to talk about cap and trade was George H.W. Bush. Now you’ve got the other party essentially saying we shouldn’t even be thinking about environmental protection; let’s gut the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)].”
What Obama Didn’t Say During the Debates
What Obama did not admit was that he had completely broken his campaign promise on cap and trade. As the New York Times’s John Broder reported on April 11, 2009, “The president’s budget initially included roughly $650 billion in revenue over 10 years from a cap-and-trade emissions plan that he wants adopted. But the administration, while insisting that its health care initiative be protected, did not fight to keep cap-and-trade in the budget resolutions that Congress passed last week, and it wound up in neither the House’s version nor the Senate’s.”
Business lobbyists had no problem with Obama’s tepid leadership. Karen A. Harbert, a former senior Energy Department official and head of the US Chamber of Commerce’s energy institute commented, “We have not until now had the national debate on a climate change proposal period. That has to happen for any piece of legislation to achieve broad support across the country.” (She neglected to mention that the energy industry her institute represents likely played a role in the lack of debate.)
In November 2011, The Guardian’s US environmental correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg wrote, “Barack Obama has been just as zealous as George Bush in stripping away environmental health and safety protection at the behest of industry.” He overruled scientific advisers and “blocked stronger ozone standards.” Also, according to a Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) report, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) “change more than 80% of the rules proposed by the EPA.”
None of the rule changes could be considered good. The report by CPR described a “tag team of opposition” consisting of industry groups and OIRA economists that consistently confronted an already overwhelmed agency. For example:
OIRA, as an institution, has a history of viewing EPA regulations as overly aggressive and economically unsound, so industry complaints along the same lines are almost certain to find a receptive audience. For example, in OIRA’s recent review of EPA’s proposal to regulate coal ash, industry groups met with OIRA 33 times (out of 47 total meetings). They argued that EPA’s rule would inadvertently impose a crippling “stigma” on the beneficial recycling of coal ash, spelling disaster for the reuse industry, and by extension, the environment. Lo and behold, at the conclusion of its review, OIRA faulted the agency for neglecting such a compelling issue and demanded that the proposal incorporate industry’s concerns before being released. In its rush to accommodate industry stakeholders, OIRA ignored the fact that EPA had never observed such a stigma effect in its prior experience, and it failed to address whether potential “market stigma” was even a permissible factor for consideration under the relevant statute. When the proposed rule was finally released, its cost-benefit analysis suggested that the most effective regulatory option could result in an enormous stigma effect: $233.5 billion in negative benefits (costs) to society. Much to the detriment of communities affected by toxic coal ash, the weaker regulatory alternatives that would barely make a dent in the status quo were made to appear far more attractive—exactly the outcome that industry wanted in the first place.
On September 15, 2011, the EPA delayed climate change rules. This occurred just weeks after the Obama administration caved to energy industry interests. Alden Mayer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, reacted, “Playing kick the can down the road with EPA rules is a dangerous game. The longer we wait, the more costly climate change will be.”
In April, Obama followed in the footsteps of Bush by issuing a proposed rule that critics said would only increase the likelihood of polar bear extinction. Obama chose to expand offshore oil drilling in the Arctic in June of this year with a plan that the Center for Biological Diversity’s Ocean Programs Director Miyoko Sakashita characterized as one that encouraged “further reliance on oil” and threatened “species already stressed by the impacts of climate change.” Obama skipped the Rio Earth Summit in June. Also, while campaigning, he has been totally indifferent toward groups protesting against the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Former Vice President Al Gore appropriately summed up Obama’s negligence and inaction in an essay for Rolling Stone in June 2011: “President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis…He has not defended the science against the ongoing withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community … to bring the reality of the science before the public.”
The Science of Sandy
The science of Hurricane Sandy is startling. Meteorologist Jeff Masters described on “Democracy Now!” it had 85 mph winds. A wintertime low-pressure system was sucking it in to the make the storm like one never before seen in history. “The US has never seen this sort of a large storm where you’ve got winds that are tropical-storm force, about 900 miles in diameter,” he added. “And the radius of 12-foot seas surrounding the storm is more than 500 miles. So, over a 1,100-mile-diameter area of 12-foot-high waves—just a massive storm.”
The “approximately one-degree-Fahrenheit warming of the oceans” that had occurred over the past century was contributing to the storm’s intensity. Winds were higher in speed, which meant there would be more wind damage. Also, the fact this was taking place in the final days of October confirmed science indicating that the warming of oceans is making hurricane season longer. While this is unique now, continued climate change would make the “ridiculous combination of a nor’easter and hurricane that comes ashore” more commonplace if humanity could not muster up the collective courage to respond to climate change.
Leading activist Bill McKibben appeared on “Democracy Now!” as well. He warned, “We’re producing conditions like record warm temperatures in sea water that make it easier for this sort of thing to get, in this case, you know, up the Atlantic with a head of steam. We’re making—we’re raising the sea levels. And when that happens, it means that whatever storm surge comes in comes in from a higher level than it would have before.” He singled out the fossil fuel industry, “the most powerful and richest industry” on Earth, which has been behind the maintenance of the status quo that includes a steadily warming climate. He pointed out how foolish Romney must feel now that he is on the campaign trail and this is happening.
What he did not share was just how much President Obama himself had contributed to the horrific disaster about to overtake the northeastern part of the United States for the next few days. Host Amy Goodman asked the critical question after McKibben described activism he would be promoting to put pressure on the fossil fuel industry: “Bill McKibben, why are you waiting ’til after the presidential election to have your 20-city tour raising the issue, calling it ‘Do the Math?’”
More Frankenstorms in America’s Future
Though McKibben’s group, 350.org, has engaged in some actions (see photo in this post), during the election was when 350.org should have had its major tour. Making Obama uncomfortable while he was trying to run a polished campaign was when to tour around raising the issue of climate change and how deferential the Obama administration has been to energy industry interests. But, instead, McKibben has played it safe by really letting Obama off the hook when it comes to his complete disregard for this issue.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein declared in a statement, “If President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy policy is pursued, it’s ‘game over’ for the climate,” said Stein. “Romney once was honest about climate, but now is parroting industry lines.” She drew attention to drought that “blighted 60% of the corn crops in the US” and wildfires that “have turned thousands into refugees.” And also mentioned, “The Arctic ice cap has lost 75% of its ice and dangerous methane gas is seeping out from melting subterranean deposits.”
Stein, who was excluded from the debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, added it was the first time since 1984 that global warming had not been mentioned in the presidential debates.
The Frankenstorm has exposed yet another dimension of how woefully corrupt and hopeless the two-party system of politics in America happens to be. The local news and cable news programs may not be talking about climate change as they cover the hurricane 24/7 for the next few days. They are unlikely to cover extensively how servile the campaigns of Obama and Romney have been to energy interests. But, they should. And Americans should know that when they vote for Obama or Romney on November 6 they are voting for two candidates that is likely to serve the fossil fuel industry in a manner that will only ensure more extreme weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy occur if Americans do not wake up to the stark future posed by unimpeded climate change.
In some ways it is poetic justice that the storm is hitting both New York City, a center of capitalism, and Washington, DC, the hub of America’s political class. There is a real cost to the Earth if something does not happen to break the stranglehold the two-party system has on US politics and the government. Anyone voting for Jill Stein is breaking with the two parties that cooperate in ways which imperil the world. And, if the photos and video of damage from Hurricane Sandy do not wake up many more Americans to the stark reality, if damage or inconvenience one experiences to one’s own property during the storm does not awaken citizens, one wonders what will.