Home Viewpoints

Superstorm Sandy and the US Elections: The Social Cost of Political Ignorance?

US Elections 2012The rigorous campaigning by US President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney is about to end in a few hours time. The intensive debates between the Presidential candidates in past few weeks might have ruffled apprehensions on contentious security issues, clarified positions at-length on foreign affairs, and proposed future course of action on creating jobs, but what they collaboratively steered off from speaking on, was climate change.

It is rather difficult to imagine that the leader of the world’s most significant contributor to greenhouse gases, President Obama, chose not to speak on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, or on realization of the promise he made for climate change legislation when, in 2008, he said, “Generations would look back, and say, among other things, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, retorted in August this year, by saying, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

It’s surprising to note that despite mounting scientific evidence, both the candidates chose to ignore or mock at climate change issues that are emerging as more prominent and threatening.

The timing of Superstorm Sandy, though an undesired coincidence, came at a time when climate change was almost blocked (or blacked out) from the discussion space. The huge trail of devastation that it left in its aftermath hampered election campaigning and threw the climate change agenda back into public domain.

But will this issue garner popular support or evoke any interest? Will people be able to rally around this issue and ask what their politicians would want to do about it?

Not likely.

A majority of the US population is facing the wrath of a lingering economic crisis, with low growth prospects and uncertain employment. With such pressing issues dominating most of the ‘discussion space’, there would be little appreciation of silent dangers. People believe what they see and hear most, and that’s where the trap lies. With leaders not keen on championing this issue, it is likely to remain a sidelined issue.

But what is worrisome is that this political ignorance is surreptitiously promoting a myth or an ‘erroneous belief’ that an economy can work without worrying much about climate change issues. This is quite evident in Romney’s support to dirty energy Tar Sands project – the Keystone XL pipeline – and his promise to dilute some of Obama’s environmental laws.

But ‘Hurricane Sandy’ is a stark reality and is an outcome of warming oceans. It has been scientifically proved that the ferocity of hurricanes multiplies manifold when they sit on warmer oceans. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that the potential destructiveness of hurricanes have shown a substantial upward trend since the mid-1970s, “with a trend towards longer storm duration and greater storm intensity, and the activity is strongly correlated with tropical sea surface temperature”.

Brushing aside these facts, the two presidential candidates have deftly kept the people hooked on to the more obvious and immediate issues – a move that perhaps makes it easy for them to connect across voters. By doing so, they have obfuscated the growing threat of climate change to suite their political agenda.

There seems to be a deeply entrenched notion among political leadership, that talking of reduction in consumption and moderation of lifestyles would not augur well with the voting class that is already reeling under poor macro-economic conditions.

But is this not a short-lived approach?

Irreversible climate change can have much profound impact on economy and cause far greater damage to life. According to a 2011 report from Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, the extreme weather in 2011 exposes the social and economic vulnerability of US to climate change and points out that planners and policy makers must draw lessons from recent individual (extreme) weather events and inform their action plans.

But who is going to educate the masses about the impacts of climate change or rake it up as a political issue worthy of debate?

President Barack Obama, being in power, might have achieved some milestones in getting key environmental regulations, such as the energy efficiency norms for vehicles, approved, but has missed the larger opportunity to turn it into a nation-wide political issue (read more on this in our post “The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change – A Serious Ethical Lapse?” by guest author Prof. Donald A. Brown of Widener University School of Law.)

Hurricanes, such as Sandy, cannot be merely termed as natural disasters. Scientific evidence strongly substantiating the contribution of human activity in the phenomenal increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions cannot be wished away. Climate change is as much worthy of debate in political domain as in the scientific domain.

For now, the consequences of ‘Sandy’ or the social cost of political ignorance will be borne by the people, the nation and the world. By not addressing climate change, or rather mocking at it, political parties may win elections, but the nation would definitely stand out to lose.

G V P Rajan


G V P Rajan is Vice President (Sustainable Strategies) at ThinktoSustain.com and can be reached at rajan@thinktosustain.com.

© 2012 ThinktoSustain.com. All Rights Reserved.