Will Politicians Actually Heed the Lessons of Sandy?

What's to come?
Nov. 5 2012 12:22 PM

Will Politicians Actually Heed the Lessons of Sandy?

The superstorm demonstrated that our infrastructure is not ready for climate change.

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A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

This article also appears on As We Now Think, a site edited by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. ASU is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.

All storms tell stories. Some are inevitably about destruction. Others are about heroism and resilience in the face of disaster. Still others are inflection points in the larger narratives through which societies confront the major issues of their times.

Among the many stories forming in the wake of Sandy’s devastation of the East Coast, one in particular has begun to seep into the national consciousness. After the storm’s landfall, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each made separate arguments for new infrastructure to protect New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan from extreme storm surges. Such a project could ultimately cost the city $10 billion or more. In making their cases, both highlighted questions about climate change and its potential to significantly alter the frequency and intensity of future storms. Gone was any notion that Sandy was an exceptional—perhaps one in every 500 years—event. Twice in less than a decade, a powerful hurricane had pummeled an iconic American city and a center of American culture and vibrancy: New Orleans and, now, New York.

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On Thursday, Bloomberg took the argument significantly further, unexpectedly endorsing Barack Obama for president with the statement that he is the most likely of the two candidates to seriously address the climate threat confronting the nation. Suddenly, the profound silence about climate change that lingered throughout the campaign ended. Media commentators reiterated their earlier observations about the absence of even a mention of climate change in the presidential debates. The liberal blogosphere exploded with excitement: Would Sandy alter the political dynamics of climate change among the U.S. public? Outside groups (campaign-speak for groups that run ads independently from the two campaigns) launched ads in battleground states Ohio and Virginia replaying footage of Romney joking about climate change during his speech to the Republican National Convention.

Whatever the impact of new attention to climate change on the presidential campaign, however—and I can’t think it will be very significant at this late stage—Cuomo and Bloomberg’s new narrative is likely to profoundly shape the politics of climate change for decades to come. Sandy’s timing is especially poignant in the annals of New York. Until recently, Cuomo has been a balanced but active proponent for drilling for natural gas in New York. This position makes extraordinary economic sense. Cuomo desperately wants to reduce the state’s dependence on aging coal and nuclear power plants while also reducing New York’s need to purchase fuel resources to fire those plants from out of state. In the midst of an unemployment crisis, new jobs from drilling would add a valuable new source of economic vitality for the state. Yet, last month, Cuomo pulled his unequivocal support for new state rules to allow drilling and asked state agencies to revisit the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. In turn, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has reset its regulatory rule-making process. Cuomo’s final decision will now come in Sandy’s powerful wake.

Opponents of fracking now have a potent new arrow in their quiver in their efforts to persuade Cuomo not to approve drilling. Whatever the short-term merits of natural gas as an energy source, the bottom line is that natural gas is not “clean energy.” Natural gas remains a potent source of carbon. Locking in further dependence on a natural gas infrastructure will not only lock in carbon emissions into the atmosphere for the foreseeable future, further accelerating climate change, but will also create powerful new interests in favor of natural gas drilling and consumption in New York politics for decades to come. How will state agencies come down on the environmental and health costs of natural gas in the wake of Sandy’s crippling blow to the state and its tenuous but highly suggestive link to climate change? Will Cuomo ultimately choose not to endorse drilling for gas? These questions now loom large in New York politics—and their ramifications for broader U.S. politics, already significant, will only grow. Cuomo is a likely candidate for president in 2016, no matter who wins next week. Sandy gives him nearly unquestionable legitimacy to raise climate change as a central security threat to the United States and a profound challenge for the nation. Will he do so? We will have to wait and see.

No less transformative is Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama. Bloomberg is a far more powerful icon of Wall Street than Romney could ever hope to be, controls a major media empire, and represents for many in the country the kind of moderate, centrist voice for economic policy so absent in the recent political shenanigans in Washington. His endorsement of Obama harms Romney’s claim to represent the historical power of wealthy white plutocrats to successfully run the economy. It also pulls no punches on climate change: “Our climate is changing. … [T]his week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action. … We need leadership from the White House. … One [candidate] sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not.”

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