You know that mom cliche’ of yesteryear about the kid who lacks the sense to come in out of a good hard rain? As a country, we’ve been that clue-free child for decades, determined to pretend that whatever “freak storm” we’ve just been through is nothing we’ll ever have to worry about again.
In fact, while the flood risk has been rising, we’ve been regressing; way back in 1988, there was not only a question about climate change during a vice-presidential debate, but one of the visionaries in the running that year boldly replied that that summer’s drought had certainly “highlighted the problem that we have.”
“The greenhouse effect is an important environmental issue,” the aspiring veep said, and “it’s important for us to get the data in to see what alternatives we might have to fossil fuels.”
“Therefore,” concluded J. Danforth Quayle, “we need to get on with it.”
For all we’ve learned in the years since then, about rising, warming waters and melting arctic ice, we never really have gotten on with it; somehow, other issues are always pronounced more pressing. In 2000, even the man who’s since made a crusade of saving the planet barely mentioned it. At the time, Al Gore’s advisers patiently explained to me that the environment ranked a pitiful 13th among concerns expressed by voters, and thus was a poor use of the candidate’s platform.
Post-Sandy, though, some politicians are stating the obvious. “There’s been a series of extreme weather incidents,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “That’s not a political statement; that’s a factual statement … I would like to say this is probably the last occurrence we’ll have, [but] I don’t believe that. I said to the president kiddingly the other day, we have a 100-year flood every two years now.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg went even further on Thursday when he put his lips together and finally pulled climate change into the presidential race: “In just 14 months,” he wrote in his surprise endorsement of Obama, “two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods — something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable.” The climate is changing, Bloomberg observed, and while one candidate “sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not.”
Of course, seeing and doing something about it are two different things. But on this issue, there’s no comparing the two men: Barack Obama set higher fuel-efficiency standards and tightened mercury emissions, and Mitt Romney, well, he used to think emissions from coal plants were killing us, but doesn’t any more. During the second debate, he accused the president of not exactly being, “Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal,” which is I guess how Romney does hope to be known. I’m afraid that my friends who expect Obama to devote himself to saving the environment and addressing the root causes of poverty in a second term are dreaming; I haven’t heard him promise anything of the kind. But the fossil-fuel-hating Romney of ’03 isn’t coming back, either — and when he says deregulation would be a cornerstone of a Romney presidency, I tend to believe him.
We can never get back the years we’ve spent in denial, of course. Back in ’06, I wrote about a park ranger in the Grand Tetons who told a group of us that though no one studied the glaciers there any more, “you can see from aerial photos that they have receded dramatically in the last thirty years, due to warm weather in the park and elsewhere.’’ Elsewhere, as in all over the planet?
“I don’t like to call it’’ climate change, the ranger answered, “because some people don’t believe in global warming, and I’ve had people get very upset with me for calling it that. So now I just say ‘warm weather,’ because no one can argue with that.’’
Wrong, Ranger Bobette; I’d argue that our refusal to call climate change by its name has led us straight to the unhappy spectacle of Romney and Obama debating who is the greater friend of the energy lobby.
In August, climate change expert James Hansen apologized in the Post that his warnings in 1988 — back when both Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle freely acknowledged that there was a problem — had been so far off. As in, had been so wildly over-optimistic. “For the extreme hot weather of the recent past,” he said, referring to the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010 and the droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year, “there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”
Yet one of the few patches of common ground in American politics is scorched: After driving past mile after mile of burned up corn in Indiana this summer, I asked both Senate candidates in that state whether it wasn’t time to talk about — you know, climate change. Republican Richard Mourdock: “No; Alaska’s having the coldest summer on record. Weather is different every year.” Democrat Joe Donnelly: “I don’t talk about that. That’s a conversation for another day.”
At last, that day is here, and anyone who says otherwise is standing out in the rain still.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.