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Hurricane Sandy blows climate change into the election fray

  • Author: Charles Sennott
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published November 5, 2012

BOSTON— The powerful winds of Hurricane Sandy seem to have blown in the direction of President Barack Obama.

At least that was the general consensus among political pundits on the Sunday talk shows who also expressed surprise that the devastation caused by rising waters and Sandy's high winds have put the issue of climate change at center stage in a presidential race where environmental policy was hardly mentioned.

The damage along the East Coast caused by 70 mph winds and surging tides – projected to cost as much as $50 billion – may indeed end up a deciding factor, but polls suggest it is still an election that is just too close to call.

On CBS' Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer underscored that while the storm will not sway loyal party voters, it could impact independents and undecided voters who saw President Obama in a decidedly presidential moment of leadership in one of the worst hurricanes in the nation's history.

John Dickerson, director of political coverage for CBS, said that among "soft Republicans" and "undecided voters" Governor Romney had lost momentum in the aftermath of the super storm and President Obama had gained momentum by being seen as "the man of the moment," working across party lines and responding effectively to a crisis.

"To the extent anyone benefits politically, it probably helped the president," Dickerson said.

David Gergen, who served in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said, "He handled it very well, and I think he got a bump out of it."

"All that together gives you that little cresting that you look for in a campaign right at the end," added Gergen.

In a memorable scene last week, Chris Christie, New Jersey's heavyweight Republican governor, praised President Obama's federal support for a state battered by flooding and high winds. And then there was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was a Republican but now declares himself an independent, also singing the President's praises. The cherry on top last week for President Obama was an endorsement by The Economist.

All of these expressions of support have given the incumbent President new momentum heading into the last few days before the election.

Beyond the politics of Sandy, there is a clear sense in the aftermath that one of the worst storms in the nation's history, which came amid a steady rise in extreme weather in recent years, has revealed a nation that is increasingly vulnerable. Sandy showed that the U.S. is unprepared for what the vast majority of scientists agree is the fast approaching reckoning of global warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses.

President Obama has not made the environment a priority of his administration, but he has pushed hard on lowering carbon emissions. He has also focused on strengthening the Federal Emergency Management Administration to make it more responsive in catastrophic events like Sandy and to never allow a repeat of the failure of response that occurred in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Governor Mitt Romney has not provided voters a clear vision on the question of the environment and has actively sought to cut funding for many programs that environmentalists hold dear. He has also talked of cutting federal funding, including funds to FEMA.

So in an election where most big, global policy questions such as Afghanistan, the use of drones and how to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions have produced little or no debate, the differences between these two candidates on climate change has blown suddenly into the campaign in a big way.

The difference between Obama and Romney on this issue was big enough for Bloomberg to write a ringing endorsement of Obama, saying, "The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast – in lost lives, lost homes and lost business – brought the stakes of Tuesday's presidential election into sharp relief. Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world 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."

Bloomberg also praised Obama for taking "major steps to reduce our carbon consumption." In turn, Bloomberg said that on the issue of climate change, Romney had "reversed course, abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported."

And so if Obama is re-elected, a looming question over his second term will be whether he will remember and recognize the importance of climate change in his political fate and, more importantly, the fate of the planet.

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