‘Dialogue’ Discusses Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change Perceptions in the U.S.December 20, 2012 By Kate Diamond
Did Hurricane Sandy change the discussion about climate change in the United States? In this latest episode of the Wilson Center’s Dialogue program, Senior Wilson Center Advisor and Ohio University Professor Geoff Dabelko joins host John Milewski to discuss the potential impact of Sandy on climate policy and dialogue in the United States with Darryl Fears (The Washington Post) and Bob Deans (Natural Resources Defense Council).
Opening the Door to a Complicated Debate
The fact that the storm hit the densely populated Northeast corridor and the financial heart of the country has helped change perceptions, said Dabelko. It upends the notion that climate change is something that happens overseas and provides “greater opportunity for discussion” here in the United States.
And the timing too played a major role. The storm coincided with the end of a presidential election where voters “had the clearest choice in history…between one candidate who said climate change is a joke, and another who said that it’s a threat to our future,” said Deans. “And overwhelmingly the country went for the guy who said this is a threat.”
But although climate change may be receiving more attention, its complexities are still a challenge to communicate.
On the one hand, climate change means more variability in weather patterns. Deans pointed out that Sandy was preceded by the worst U.S. drought in over half a century, for example.
On the other hand, Dabelko warned against drawing explicit ties between a warming world and specific weather events. Reducing today’s major storms to a direct result of climate change doesn’t show the full picture; after all, he said, “we had storms before the Industrial Revolution started doubling the CO2 emissions level concentrations in the atmosphere.”
“Part of it is there are multiple stresses,” he said, and that ambiguity “can complicate the debate,” tempting people to say, “It’s not wholly climate so therefore we don’t care.”
Broadening Horizons to Find Solutions
Given the complexity of the causes and effects of climate change, solutions will have to be creative and span the traditional silos that often divide institutional and government responses, Dabelko said. “We need the engineers, we need the lawyers, we need the scientists, but we also need the behavioral psychologists and the business community to understand why people choose to purchase and consume differently.”
Lawmakers and policy experts at the federal level also need to embrace ideas that come from cities and states, which have been the “historical center for innovation and response to environmental problems,” he continued. “We will see [local, state, and regional] leaders taking responsibility for the impacts, because they’re feeling it.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last minute endorsement of President Obama on the grounds of urgency to address climate change was a stunning example of this after Sandy. And similarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters after the storm that “anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality.”
Even seemingly simple measures, like improving public transportation, can play a role in how leaders respond. “In urban areas, in particular, you can invest in mass transportation,” said Fears, adding that “there are a number of ways…to just draw down that carbon use.”
“It is a new normal,” Dabelko said, “and not just an episodic thing that is a short-term crisis that we can move on from.”
Sources: The New York Times.
Video Credit: Dialogue at the Wilson Center.