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November 5, 2012

The Climate Elephant in the Voting Booth

Trisolinism.jpgBy Associate Professor Kathy Trisolini

In the immediate aftermath of "Superstorm" Sandy, a number of articles appeared in the mainstream press with pundits asking how Sandy might affect the election. Aside from practical questions about the logistics of early voting, most pundits focused on how the candidates' responses could affect their respective public images. "Who would 'look like' a leader?" they asked. Yet the presidential election is much more important than just another issue of People magazine, a fact obscured by the excessive focus on image and how it affects the horse race.

BloggingBallot.jpgSandy is just another example of a changing trend in extreme weather events. Last summer, excessive drought damaged crops and stranded boats on the Mississippi; each summer we are setting new heat records and Arctic ice falls to historic lows. Human-caused climate change is altering the stable environment upon which we have relied in choosing where to live and deciding how to build our homes, how to lay out our infrastructure and how to develop our economy. This should be an election issue of the first magnitude.

Apparently under sway of the woefully mistaken notion that environmental protection and economic health are competing goals, the national Republican Party has decided that it is in its interest to take an extreme anti-science position on climate change. In fact, as Sandy should be making clear, our economic health (not to mention our personal safety) is highly dependent on stable climactic conditions. The economy is not thriving when the nation's airports are shut down, Lower Manhattan is under water, and millions of people are without electricity.

If we continue to have virtually all of the national leaders from one party claiming that climate change does not exist (despite a scientific consensus comparable to the agreement that smoking contributes to lung cancer), we will fail to prepare ourselves for the impending changes and fail to reduce the impacts to the extent that is possible. (Notably, this mistaken hostility toward addressing the most pressing problem of our time seems to be predominantly a blindness of the national Republican Party; mayors in contrast have taken a largely bipartisan approach to the issue, as Mayor Bloomberg's recent announcement illustrates.) If the press continues to largely abdicate its responsibility to meaningfully raise this issue, our national discussion -- and indeed our future -- will suffer the consequences.

I hope that we will not have to wait for more weather catastrophes to make climate change policy a focal point of the national dialogue. I urge members of the media and Congress, as well as the White House administration, to bring the issue to the forefront and hold politicians accountable when they mislead the public about climate change science and obstruct sensible policy solutions to the problem.