Will Sandy Change How We Talk About Climate Change?

The outlook is not good.

Alex Tingle

This year -- the year of record-setting Arctic sea ice melt, extreme drought, nasty wildfires, and, of course, the presidential election -- has not exactly been a paragon of Enlightenment-envisioned consideration of science, deliberation, and policy making. Any discussion of the climate-change problem was off the table during the presidential debates. The most (and, perhaps, only) notable mention of climate change in the campaigns so far was Mitt Romney's convention-address joke, mocking Obama for promising to "slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet."

For all those lamenting this "climate silence," Hurricane Sandy had a silver lining: Finally, here would be the impetus for a real conversation about climate change and how to slow its ever-accelerating progress. Even if it can be hard to draw a direct line from climate change to any single weather event, surely a major and freakish storm would get people talking.

And while this does seem to be happening -- fleetingly, I'm sure, like our desperate attention to gun violence following each mass shooting -- the phenomenon of it illustrates just one of many reasons why climate change is so tough to tackle. As Beth Gardiner wrote recently in The New York Times, "We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly." All of these things mean that collectively we have a really hard time grappling with the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions even as the evidence -- both scientific and anecdotal -- piles up.

But it's unfair to suggest that our inability to take large-scale action on climate change is the result of some quirk of the human mind or, more unfairly yet, the failures of activists, scientists, and journalists to properly convey the ramifications of a changing planet. No, any explanation of this inaction must focus on the systematic campaign on the part of the fossil-fuel industry and free-market ideologues to discredit the scientific consensus and make politically toxic any policy that would curb carbon-dioxide emissions. Sandy-sparked conversations are up against a lot.

And yet despite all this, if there's any reason to find comfort in the way the conversation has followed Sandy's massive road, it's in this morning's remarks from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, without ever explicitly naming climate change, demonstrated a seriousness about the issue rarely seen among America's political leaders. "As I said to the president yesterday, we have a 100-year flood every two years," a tweet reported him saying. "The construction of this city did not anticipate these type of conditions," another recorded. We cannot just build a wall around Manhattan; a wall would have to go all the way around Queens and the whole city. Just not realistic, he implied.

Governors and mayors will be where the rubber meets the road. The demonstrable, physical effects of climate change will fall on their populations, their voters. If we have struggled to take climate change seriously when it has seemed to be an abstraction, it will be local political leaders in the years ahead yelling that it is anything but.