First, there was Snowpocalypse. Then there was Snowmageddon. That was followed by Thundersnow. This summer brought the derecho. And most recently, we've been visited by Frankenstorm. Aside from their odd names, these events all have a few more things in common. Along with this summer's historic heatwave, epic drought, and western wildfires, these events are part of a recent trend of increasingly extreme weather.
Climate change is certainly a contributing factor to both the frequency and intensity of these events. Most Americans believe extreme weather events are related to climate change, and science backs them up. In the aftermath of every extreme weather event, activists have raised their voices to demand action on climate change or denounce the lack thereof. Hurricane Sandy, aka Frankenstorm, is just the most recent. The difference is that Sandy arrived on the eve of a presidential election between two starkly different records on climate change and related environmental policies.
Sandy's winds were still wreaking havoc in New Jersey and New York when bloggers, writers, and activists like Salon's Natasha Lennard began to ask: "Why Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been silent on climate change on the campaign trail?"
As NPR’s Adam Frank points out, climate experts have tried to parse the issue of extreme weather events and climate change in two general ways. Some seek to establish “what percentage of an extreme event’s magnitude came from a changing climate.” Others, like British scientist Peter Stott, “look at the odds for a given extreme weather event to occur given human-driven climate change.”
While millions of Americans batten down the hatches and millions more stay glued from afar to Sandy’s ruinous spectacle, no resolution will be found to the climate change/freak storm question. But it is nonetheless the question on millions of minds today, as it is every time an extreme weather event strikes. So why is neither presidential candidate this year exploring the issue with us?
After all, as Peter Beinart writes at The Daily Beast, government has a basic responsibility when it comes to climate change (not to mention the disasters linked to it).
I suspect that in the days ahead President Obama will avoid mentioning Mitt Romney’s proposed disbanding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for fear of being accused of injecting crass electoral concerns into what should be a pristinely apolitical natural disaster.
The sanctimony is nauseating. In a democracy, politics is not something we stop discussing when tragedy strikes. It’s the mechanism we use, as best we can, to prevent such tragedies.
If there’s one thing that even the Tea Party agrees that government should do, it is protect lives, property, and public order. When government policy allows, and even subsidizes, business and individuals to engage in behavior that heats up the oceans, and that extra heat helps produce killer storms like Sandy, government has failed its most basic responsibility.
While it may be that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney haven't said much about climate change on the campaign trail, both men talked about it at their party conventions. Romney joked about climate change during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention. Obama rebutted Romney on climate change, curing his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.
In accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama cited his efforts to boost cars' fuel efficiency, cut energy waste in buildings and expand solar and wind power. "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax," he told the delegates in Charlotte, N.C., who cheered loudly. "More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future."
His comments, welcomed by environmentalists who've urged him to take more of a campaign stand on climate change, were a rebuke to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who drew laughter and applause at the Republican National Convention last week by poking fun at Obama's environmental rhetoric.
In fact, Obama went further on climate change than any other speaker at the Dem convention. And while the president may be vulnerable to critics who say he hasn't had enough to say about climate change during the campaign, the record of what president Obama has done — or tried to do, faced with what was arguably the worst, most obstructionist, most unpopular do-nothing congress ever — makes it clear that if Obama hasn't said enough about climate change during the campaign, he's done several things to address climate change during his first term in office.
The White House fact sheet on the Obama administration's environmental record includes a number of accomplishments related to climate change:
- Passing the stimulus: The stimulus contained about $90 billion in financing for a wide range of clean energy programs, and appears to have boosted wind and solar generation.
- Reducing emissions through regulations and standards: The Administration has made the largest clean energy investment in American history, putting the U.S. on track to double renewable power generation between 2008 and the end of 2011. The Administration has also proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for limiting carbon pollution from new power plants.
- Monitoring Emissions: Under the Obama administration, the U.S. is for the first time cataloging greenhouse gas emissions from the largest sources. President Obama has also directed the federal government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from direct sources.
- Adapting to climate change: Under the Obama administration, federal agencies are drafting their first ever climate change adaptation plans.
- Curbing automobile pollution: Obama proposed fuel economy standards that will nearly double efficiency by 2025.
The Washington Monthly's list of Obama's top 50 accomplishments include a few more climate-related items.
- Created Conditions to Begin Closing Dirtiest Power Plants: New EPA restrictions on mercury and toxic pollution, issued in December 2011, likely to lead to the closing of between sixty-eight and 231 of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Estimated cost to utilities: at least $11 billion by 2016. Estimated health benefits: $59 billion to $140 billion. Will also significantly reduce carbon emissions and, with other regulations, comprises what’s been called Obama’s “stealth climate policy.”
- Invested Heavily in Renewable Technology: As part of the 2009 stimulus, invested $90 billion, more than any previous administration, in research on smart grids, energy efficiency, electric cars, renewable electricity generation, cleaner coal, and biofuels.
Progressives who remain resolutely unimpressed with the president's accomplishments should familiarize themselves with Mitt Romney's radical energy plan.
As he seeks the support of undecided voters in key swing states, Mitt Romney is portraying himself as a centrist at heart—not as the “severely conservative Republican” he said he was during the hard-fought GOP primaries. This kinder, gentler Romney was very much on display in his televised debates with President Obama. But a close examination of his energy plan, released on August 23, reveals no such moderation; rather, it is a blueprint for the systematic plunder of America’s farm and wilderness areas, coupled with a neocolonial invasion of Canada and Mexico.
The true content of the Romney plan, titled “Energy Independence,” is not easily deciphered, as it is buried in lofty rhetoric about North American energy independence and the creation of millions of high-paying jobs. “I have a vision for an America that is an energy superpower, rapidly increasing our own production and partnering with our allies Canada and Mexico to achieve energy independence on this continent,” Romney declared.
Read between the lines, however, and the predatory nature of his vision becomes evident. Essentially, the plan is intended to remove most impediments to the exploitation by US energy firms of untapped oil, gas and coal fields in the United States, Canada and Mexico, regardless of the consequences for national health, safety or the environment. In particular, the plan has five key objectives: eliminating federal oversight of oil and gas drilling on federal lands; eviscerating all environmental restraints on domestic oil, gas and coal operations; eliminating curbs on drilling in waters off Florida and the east and west coasts of the United States; removing all obstacles to the importation of Canadian tar sands; and creating an energy consortium with Canada and Mexico allowing for increased US corporate involvement in—and control over—their oil and gas production.
President Obama would do well to sat moreboth his accomplishments and second-term agenda related to climate change, but his record speaks for itself. So, for that matter, does Mitt Romney's.