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Elections, Hurricane Sandy, and Choices

Elections, Hurricane Sandy, and Choices

American voters made their choices November 6th among presidential and congressional candidates; now Hurricane Sandy asks the winners to make harder choices. A few days before the elections and shortly after Sandy hit, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Barack Obama for president, saying “Our climate is changing, and while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

The content and urgency of “elected leaders…immediate action” depends on answers to four questions:

1. Does any harmful climate change-global warming exist?
2. If climate change exists, are human activities a major cause?
3. What, if anything, should governments, corporations and individuals do to slow or stop human-caused climate change?
4. What, if any, adaptations to climate change are required?

Great leaders can sometimes take people where they did not want to go; see Stephen Spielberg’s true-story movie “Lincoln” about that president’s political struggle to free slaves. But our elected leaders generally depend on public opinion for winning elections, so we look for the best gauges of voter thinking. Poll-taking organizations’ great success in predicting Tuesday’s elections promotes confidence in recent polls about climate change.

Here are results from polls conducted by Pew Research Center, most recently among 1,511 adults on October 4-7: About 67% of Americans believe that the earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, and 42% believe that warming is primarily caused by human activities. The survey was taken shortly before the recent election, and there was a wide difference between Democrats, 85% of whom asserted that there is solid evidence of global warming, while only 48% of Republicans shared that conclusion. The split was even greater on the question of whether climate change is human-caused: 63% of Obama supporters said they believed climate change is anthropogenic, while only 18% of Romney supporters did so.

About 97% of serious climate scientists are convinced that earth’s climate is changing, and that man is mostly responsible, but scientists rarely make political decisions. NASA climate scientist James Hansen defined a chasm: “There’s a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public,” and “unfortunately, that gap is not being closed.”

If the Obama Administration and Congress accept available climate science and want action to slow human-caused climate change, there are models of what to do. Many European countries discourage burning hydrocarbons for energy through taxes raising consumer prices on gasoline or on all hydrocarbon burning. Norway, for instance, has a gasoline tax equivalent to $6 per gallon, and also has a new carbon tax on oil producers with receipts ear-marked to combat global warming.

On issue “4” above, Hurricane Sandy forced Mayor Bloomberg and others to think about radical measures, such as building huge, mobile dikes to stop the monster storms climate change makes more likely. Rising seas and higher land temperatures call for difficult and expensive adaptations, and the good news from Tuesday’s elections, and to public responses to Hurricane Sandy and severe droughts, is that effective action is slightly more likely.  As “Time” magazine’s 11/19/12 headline put it, “Sandy Ends the Silence: Even if politicians ignore climate change, the rest of us can’t.”

Image by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force/New Jersey National Guard (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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