Superstorm Sandy could spur US to re-engage on climate change

Updated: 2012-11-07 15:14

By Zhang Yuwei in New York (China Daily)

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 Superstorm Sandy could spur US to re-engage on climate change

A security guard in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, temporarily rebranded "Democracy Plaza" by the NBC television network, gestures toward an illuminated tote board with early results from Tuesday's election on the side of a building in the landmark New York complex. New York Yu Wei / China Daily

Superstorm Sandy could spur US to re-engage on climate change

Some predicted Barack Obama would coast to a second term on the strength of his handling of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath and other facets of the storm that devastated parts of the US East Coast last week.

"In the final days of the campaign, Hurricane Sandy served as a wake-up call for political leaders to take the necessary actions that will reduce emissions and prepare the country for climate impacts," said Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

Damon Moglen, who heads the climate and energy program at the Washington-based Friends of the Earth, said the superstorm could have helped push Obama across the finish line. But in the longer term, he said, Sandy could serve as a reminder of the dire effects of climate change, making it hard for the president to "sidestep" the issue in his second term.

"It will become a hugely important footnote in history," Moglen said of the hurricane. "It is going to be impossible for Obama in his second term not to treat climate change as a true priority.

"There is also going to be a lot of pressure from very early on for the president to pass new laws that are going to [convert] old coal-fired power plants to new coal-fired power plants' pollution."

The failure of both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during the campaign to address climate change as a problem in need of solutions has drawn rebukes from environmentalists. There was no mention of the issue during the candidates' three televised debates it.

"The president deserves very severe criticism for his unwillingness to talk in a more serious way about climate change," said Moglen. Hurricane Sandy, he added, "turned the corner on the ridiculous debate in this country" about whether climate change is real.

"Obama stands on the brink of history - either he is going to change the trajectory of American policy on climate change or he is going to go down in history as the president who failed to listen to the winds of Sandy," Moglen said.

But Obama acted swiftly after Sandy, canceling late-stage campaign stops in swing-state Ohio and heading to New Jersey to view the relief work in the storm's wake.

His swift reaction scored the president an 11th-hour endorsement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-independent, who had criticized both Obama and Romney for being tone-deaf on climate-change.

"Within the first few weeks and months of [Obama's] administration, there will be some key policy decisions that the president is going to be under pressure to make, which will indicate whether or not he is going to respond to this climate-change reality," Moglen said.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll after the hurricane showed that nearly 8 of 10 respondents thought Obama had done an "excellent" or "good" job dealing with Sandy's impact.

More importantly, the president's actions suggest climate change could become a priority in his second term, pushing the US to be more proactive at international forums such as a United Nations conference in Doha, Qatar, later this month.

"Hurricane Sandy has reignited American's awareness about climate change and the devastating impacts it brings," the World Resources Institute's Morgan said.

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said Sandy has underscored the costs inflicted by rising sea levels, more-frequent extreme weather and other effects of the world's changing climate.

"This fits into a larger context of devastating floods, droughts, record heat waves and wildfires that have cost the US billions of dollars in recent years," he said.

Obama made some progress during his first term on climate change, including the establishment of stricter Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, and advancing unprecedented investment in renewable energy.

But environmentalists say the world's biggest emitter, after China, of carbon dioxide can and should do more. "In his second term, the president can encourage action to keep the US on a low-emissions trajectory for the long term, while expediting the transition to a clean-energy future," Morgan said.

"The EPA, in particular, has the ability to further reduce dangerous greenhouse gases from existing power plants. The president can also work with Congress to advance a strong national strategy on climate and energy."

Mann also hopes Obama will use his replenished political capital to fight for an energy bill that tackles climate change head-on by encouraging a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

"I believe there is indeed an expectation now that Obama will take more concerted action in a second term to deal with the climate-change threat," he said. "That would start by authorizing our envoys in Doha to engage in meaningful negotiations aimed at achieving binding carbon emission targets."