Utility chief calls climate ‘ancillary argument’ in Sandy's wake

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“We have got to get the power back on. That is our business at this point, and we are going to get that done as fast and as safely as possible,” added Fanning, head of the nation’s second-largest power company.

Environmentalists and a number of Democratic elected officials are focusing on links between climate change and extreme weather. They say Sandy should drive enhanced efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions from coal plants owned by Southern Co. and other power companies.

Climate scientists say that warming oceans and greater atmospheric moisture are adding to the intensity of storms, and that rising sea levels are making coastal impacts worse.

They’re more cautious about whether human-induced global warming has a role in the frequency of cyclone formation, in part due to the difficulties of reconstructing the historical record.

“The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences,” states a 2012 report on extreme weather by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Fanning spoke to CNBC as widespread power outages continue.

The Energy Department said that as of Wednesday morning, 6.2 million customers remain without power, including two million in New Jersey and 1.9 million in New York.

“The challenge, the logistics of getting the power back is going to be immense, but we are dedicated to make that happen,” said Fanning. The company has sent 2,000 people to help, he said.

Crews from Southern Co. are helping utilities including ConEd, Pepco, and a half-dozen others, according to the company’s website, working through the Southeastern Electric Exchange that coordinates mutual aid in response to storms.