Federal Politics

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Sandy strike timely reminder to deniers

Phew, that was a close call. Can you imagine how events might have unfolded had hurricane Sandy struck a few weeks earlier?

Here's what would have happened - just as a twisted version of what ought to have been a sensible foreign policy debate risked dominating the closing weeks of the US presidential election campaign, climate change would have vaulted to the top of the agenda.

And here's the thing - when Americans get to debating major, major issues that affect the entire population, the progressive side of politics invariably falls short in selling its case - no matter how eminently sensible it might be. Barack Obama would have been in deep stchook.

Exhibit A? Healthcare. Obama offered a program no different in its philosophical underpinning than Australia's Medicare or Britain's National Health Service, and you would swear he was about to kill everyone's grandmother.

The US spends more on health than any other country - for abysmal outcomes.

But his opponents damned the principle that all of society should look after the collective health of the nation as ''It's socialism!''


So luck is with Obama. Politically, he took a risk in abandoning the campaign to assume full-time duties as First Responder in Chief in the aftermath of the hurricane. In reality, he had little choice - to remain on the stump would have been callous.

But unlike former president George W.Bush after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the south-east in 2005, Obama's good fortune is that the window between the hammering of the north-east and next week's election is wide enough for him to look good as an effective crisis manager and narrow enough, his strategists are praying, to preclude any embarrassing controversy.

You see the luck at work in the effusive congratulations he is getting from New Jersey state Governor, Chris Christie, a staunch Republican who might have been Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, and from Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York who is a political independent - but very influential.

The question then, for the next president of the US - and it very likely will be Obama - is how to direct a serious and meaningful policy debate on climate change. Merely winning will not be sufficient to prompt action.

Climate change is an issue in which deniers figure they are winning the argument by demanding empirical proof - and it seems that they are. A poll by the Pew Research Centre last month found that about two-thirds of Americans accept the existence of ''solid evidence'' that the earth is getting warmer - but that's 10 points less than when the same question was asked in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

So the believers attempt to play the same dialectic game. This week Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, seemed to throw the deniers a bone, when he began a tweet like this: ''Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes.'' But then this: ''Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.''

Presciently, Scientific American's Mark Fischetti blogged just a few weeks before Sandy: ''Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the earth's atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.''

It was striking in the past week to hear Obama's silence on the policy issue while Christie, Bloomberg and the New York state Governor, Mario Cuomo, used Sandy as a platform to put climate change back on the table. Cuomo told reporters: ''It's a longer conversation, but I think part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.''

Romney ducked too - aware that the window was too narrow for him to make a denier's case before Tuesday, even if he was a believer before he flip-flopped into the denier's tent to appease the Tea Party crazies.

Years ago, Romney stood for clean energy and emission caps and now claims to be a climate agnostic. You know how that works in denial politics - call for the evidence and when it is brought to the table, just call for more evidence.

When he was a little naive back in 2008, Obama campaigned on a promise to arrest climate change. In the 2012 campaign, he has been less gung-ho and when Romney addressed the issue, it was only to mock Obama's 2008 commitment in shades of Sarah Palin's ''How's that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?''

Romney told the Republican convention late in August: ''President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.''

Bitten and shy, Obama narrowed the campaign's climate focus to ''green jobs''. But he also is promising to keep digging up more coal and to drill for more oil.

His administration has insisted on better vehicle fuel-efficiency standards (by 2025!) and he has curbed mercury, carbon and other emissions in coal-fired electricity generation. But he walked away from the fight when Republican obstructionism stalled cap-and-trade legislation.

As the No. 1 economy globally, how the US tackles climate change will have a bearing on how the rest of the world does - particularly, the surging economies of China and India.

The Obama-Christie-Bloomberg-Cuomo love-in hints at the emergence of new bipartisan contours in the American policy debate - but it is also highly likely that the deniers have decided that to engage now would make them appear to be stupid or insensitive in the aftermath of Sandy. Best to lie low for a bit, as the National Rifle Association did in in the aftermath of the recent Colorado cinema massacre.

But they will go to the barricades and when they do, they might have to work a little harder to I explain the (il)logic of their climate stance and their argument on another issue - national debt, which they insist is too great a burden to bequeath to future generations.

Surely the same applies to climate change? Where is the sense in busting a gut for future generations to live debt-free if we'll have wrecked the planet on which they are to live happily ever after?

It's a bit like mum and dad calling over our shoulder to the kids as they drive away: ''There's milk in the fridge - sorry we burnt the house down. Enjoy!''