Weather: We Cared?

Did they die in vain?

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy’s assault on the United States, and one can’t help thinking of the 117 Americans who perished in that storm–and whether their deaths were simply forgotten by those who elected climate-change deniers in the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 Presidential election.

Remember that very brief political moment after Superstorm Sandy hit, when we thought the forces of climate denialism were finally on the run? Bloomberg Businessweek certainly thought Sandy would be a game-changer, running a cover story–“It’s Global Warming, Stupid”–that declared:

An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.” Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

Just a few days after Sandy savaged New York and New Jersey, President Obama was re-elected over a man who thought his climate efforts were just a big joke. In his victory speech, Obama declared:

[D]espite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future.

We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers, a country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all of the good jobs and new businesses that follow.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Of course, in the next two federal elections, a critical mass of voters decided that they didn’t really care about the “destructive power of a warming planet,” or at least they didn’t care enough to vote against those who placed the preferences of petroleum polluters over the people and the planet.

You may recall that in the weeks preceding Superstorm Sandy’s strike, the Fourth Estate seemed to go quiet on the climate issue; presidential debate moderators refused to ask any climate questions of Obama and Mitt Romney (though Candy Crowley, the moderator of the second debate, swore up and down she was going to ask such a question “for all of you climate-change people” before time ran out). Shamefully, that climate silence returned four years later; presumably, debate moderators will only ask a climate question when the Republican nominee acknowledges that climate change is real (think John McCain in 2008 and even George W. Bush eight years earlier) in order to avoid the usual “liberal bias!” allegation–which means that debate moderators may never ask a climate question again.

It defies logic that some of the very same voters who supported a candidate committed to reducing carbon pollution in 2012 backed an avowed opponent of climate action four years later. What were they thinking? Were they thinking? Did they simply forget about Sandy and the 117 Americans who died? Did they not care about the Americans–and those around the world–whose lives would be cut short by the consequences of carbon pollution if the United States failed to lead on this issue?

Five years after Superstorm Sandy, our country has been battered by a series of superstorms. Will those extreme-weather events do what Sandy failed to in terms of dismantling denialism? We’ll find out soon enough–on November 6, 2018 and November 3, 2020, to be precise.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.