Hurricane Sandy accomplished what pleas and protests from environmentalists couldn’t: it put climate change front and center in the presidential campaign.
It also underpinned New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's endorsement Thursday of President Obama, which he explained by saying Sandy brought the election stakes into “sharp relief.”
Media attention to climate has grown as well, most memorably on a Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover that plastered the words “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” over a picture of a flooded New York City street.
Climate change, in short, is having its moment after being shut out of all three presidential debates last month.
“This hurricane can, in fact, potentially move the needle in terms of opinion about climate change. Whether that translates into policy actions, that’s a much bigger question,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Environmentalists don’t want to let the moment slip away and are using the storm to renew their push for curbs on carbon emissions.
“I do think there has been a political realignment of the climate issue as a result of Sandy,” said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy for the National Wildlife Federation. “I think whoever is in office coming out of the election will have to recognize that climate has to be dealt with.”
The last several years have been a mixed bag for climate advocates in Washington. They lost big when a sweeping emissions-capping bill fell apart on Capitol Hill, but scored long-sought victories on climate regulations and mileage standards for automobiles.
Tuesday’s election is a crossroads for the movement: Mitt Romney has vowed to scuttle rules from the Environmental Protection Agency that he says will harm the economy, while advocates hope that Obama would press ahead in a second term with policies such as carbon standards for existing power plants.
It’s unclear how Sandy will affect it all. But there’s plenty of evidence that a single event can leave a lasting mark on the nation’s energy and environmental policies.
The 2010 BP oil spill lead to tougher safety rules, while a huge winter storm that year probably helped bury climate legislation in the Senate (even though scientists say extreme snowfall does not disprove global warming).
Further back in time, the nuclear accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979 helped stop new reactor construction in the United States for 30 years.
But after years of gridlock on climate and energy issues, it’s far from certain that Sandy will shake things up in Washington, D.C.
Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University, said he doesn’t expect a sea change in climate politics comparable to Three Mile Island.
“Thirty years ago media was so much more centralized, there was much more of a cohesive theme in coverage of something like that,” he said.
“In another two months, most people are going to go back to the key issue that they have seen as important over the last several years, and that is the economy and what effect is it having on their family,” he said.
House Republicans, who are expected to retain their majority on Election Day, say that their drive to scuttle EPA climate change rules will continue unabated in the next Congress.
“Our legislation protects America jobs and middle class families — the reckless cap-and-tax agenda promoted by President Obama’s EPA will destroy American jobs and hurt middle class families,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Undaunted, environmentalists have quickly worked Sandy into their political messaging in the closing days of the 2012 elections.
“In the aftermath of a year marked by devastating droughts, floods, and wildfires, topped off by the havoc wrought by the Superstorm Sandy, the decisions we make on these energy issues will determine whether we power our nation with dirty fuels that will make our climate crisis even worse, or clean energy that creates new jobs while protecting our planet and our families,” states a Sierra Club memo circulated Friday afternoon on the stakes in 2012.
Hurricane Sandy arrived after a year that already saw record-setting heat waves, drought and massive western wildfires. Scientists say that warmer ocean waters and greater atmospheric moisture from climate change are fueling the power and precipitation from storms.
But scientists are far more cautious about attributing the existence of a storm to climate change, and say it’s hard to determine whether global warming played a role in weather patterns that pushed Sandy west into New York and New Jersey.
The storm hit amid a shift in polls that has found growing public agreement with the overwhelming view among scientists that climate change is underway.
A Pew Research Center poll released in mid-October found 67 percent of Americans say there is solid evidence of global warming. That’s four points higher than 2011 and 10 points higher than 2009, although it remains well below the 77 percent who held that view five years ago.
A Yale University-George Mason University poll released in October showed that 74 percent of Americans believe that global warming is affecting weather in the United States.
“Sandy arrives amidst all of that other extreme weather experience and our data shows that many people are starting to connect the dots,” said Yale’s Leiserowitz.
Mendelson predicted that opponents of actions to curb emissions would increasingly find themselves in political jeopardy.
“There is no question that efforts to stop taking action on climate change will face some headwinds coming out of Sandy,” he said.