by Bill Becker
Superstorm Sandy may be remembered years from now as the pivot point in the United States’ response to global climate change. Politically speaking, Sandy’s true power was not its wind and water; it was the fact that it hit the principal center of America’s population, finance institutions and media.
It was another wake-up call, but with more people in high places hearing the alarm. Network news anchors are now acknowledging that climate change may be the common denominator in all the weird and destructive weather we’ve seen in recent years. Mitt Romney’s view that we don’t need FEMA is now unthinkable, and Congress should be getting the message that climate change is a budget buster – that investments in mitigation are far cheaper than paying for damages.
The Paul Reveres of climate change may find New Yorkers and New Jersyans joining their ranks. This is a case where “fugetaboutit” should become “do something about it”.
While the spotlight is on Sandy, however, let’s not forget the weather victims who’ve become yesterday’s news. The people who lost their homes in Colorado’s super-fires are still hurting. Wildfires burned a record 8 million acres in the United States last year and more than 6 million acres through August of this year. NASA scientists say wild fires will get worse in the years ahead.
The historic drought is still underway. In the mountains of Colorado where I have a home, wells are running dry. The drought is affecting 80% of the country’s farmland, bankrupting farmers, ranchers and small businesses, destroying crops, and killing livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says families everywhere will start to feel the ripple effect next year with higher prices for beef, pork, poultry and dairy products. Meanwhile, water levels are still dropping on the Mississippi River, impacting billions of dollars freight normally shipped by barge.
In parts of New Orleans, the damage remains depressing seven years after Hurricane Katrina. In the Lower Ninth Ward, citizen groups are working to restore their neighborhood, but there are still more boarded houses and empty lots than new homes. Last August, Hurricane Isaac flooded communities along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi. Communities in the Midwest and Southeast are still putting themselves back together after the outbreak of monster tornadoes last spring – the year’s first billion-dollar disasters. Joplin, Mo., still hasn’t recovered from the tornado that tore it apart back in May 2011.
In his first post-election news conference last month, President Obama said he plans to begin “working through an education process…the conversation across the country about what realistically we can do long-term to make sure (the impact of climate change) is not something we’re passing on to future generations…”
That conversation should start now on the heels of Sandy. The President should take a national climate change tour, visiting with the folks that Grist’s David Roberts respectfully calls the “mushy middle” – American citizens in teachable moments created by this year’s weather disasters.
A climate tour would give President Obama a chance to check on the well being of this year’s disaster victims and to hear their insights on how the federal government can combat climate change while helping communities better prepare for its impacts.
He should visit the mushy middle in red states as well as blue, including states whose congressional representatives remain among the most stubborn opponents of climate action. For example, more than 90% of Oklahoma is suffering from extreme drought conditions right now. Yet one of its U.S. Senators, Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate environment committee, still insists that climate change is a hoax and fights every attempt to address the issue.
The entire congressional delegation from Kansas cosponsored legislation last year to forbid the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and to limit the power of states to do so. Today, severe drought is underway in 100% of Kansas; in 78% of the state, the drought is ranked “extreme.”
While Congress has refused to enact a climate bill, states have been America’s leaders in policies to reduce global-warming pollution and increase the use of clean energy. The Center for Climate Strategies reports that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are on track to be 23% lower in 2020 than we estimated seven years ago. The biggest factor is not the economic recession or the conversion of coal plants to natural gas; it’s eight policies being implemented at the local, state and federal levels. According to CCS president Tom Peterson:
Our study shows that actions from the city to federal level are working; these programs are already lowering greenhouse gas emissions and helping better protect our country from climate change-related impacts…These are practical approaches that not only help fight climate change but also create new markets and investments, protect our national energy security, and make communities safer and more sustainable.
Among those policies are renewable energy portfolio standards. Twenty-nine states have them. But as Stephen Lacey reports on Climate Progress, some conservative organizations are fighting to repeal them, with funding from fossil energy interests.
In his news conference last month, the President made clear that he can’t give the American people the message that he’s going to “ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change.” But as weather victims in the heartland would tell him, climate change is intimately connected to economic stability, down to a very personal level. He should talk to the farmers who’ve lost their farms, the homeowners who’ve lost their homes, the small businesses owners whose flood losses have forced them to lock their doors forever, the companies that can’t ship their goods by barge, and the middle-class families facing higher food prices when they’re already struggling to cope.
The transcendent moment during the presidential campaign this year was Gov. Chris Christie’s example of putting politics aside and people first in times of crisis. Climate change has become one of our most politically polarized issues, generally breaking along partisan lines. But at root, the sustained effort by carbon interests to politicize the climate makes as much sense as politicizing gravity. Global warming is foremost an issue about the relationship between human societies and natural systems. Climate impacts are foremost an issue about the safety and well-being of people, families and communities.
That’s the spirit with which President Obama should visit with and learn from the victims of extreme weather. He will find that the national education process he promised during his recent news conference is a two-way exchange. He can give the victims hope that their President is ready to mobilize all his powers to pull us back from the climate cliff. The victims may help awaken the President’s courage, compassion and conviction to be that kind of leader.
Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. For more specific information about the Soldiers Grove experience and its lessons for other disaster-affected communities, see Becker’s report, “Rebuilding for the Future”.