As a lifelong resident of the U.S. eastern seaboard until moving to Singapore a few weeks ago, I took the early reports about Hurricane Sandy in stride. After all, this was hurricane season, we usually have some sort of weather event on the East Coast. Besides, I hadn’t been glued to CNN or any other Western-focused news outlet; I had been watching the news and events of my new surroundings in Southeast Asia.
Then people here in Singapore starting tell me they were so sorry for what was happening in the U.S. Alarmed, I started Skyping and emailing family and friends and checking the newscasts. Sure enough, I was wrong to tune out. Soon my daughter would be fleeing her apartment in Brooklyn for safer ground; a college friend in lower Manhattan lost power as we Skyped. The deadly “superstorm” was to wash away much of my childhood stomping grounds on the Jersey Shore, and has my adopted hometown of Boston feeling like it dodged a bullet but may not be so lucky next time. (A friend from high school, Kevin Coyne, a journalist who teaches at Columbia, wrote a moving piece on the storm’s aftermath here).
This was a week before the presidential election. Up until then, the issue of climate change and what to do about it never came up in the three presidential debates, nor the vice presidential debate, nor the campaign in general. This despite 2012 seeing one of the hottest summers and worst droughts on record, leading to deadly wildfires and crop damage that cost the American economy billions of dollars.
Once Sandy hit, commentators and scientists engaged the public in a discussion on the causes and impacts of Sandy, yet no alarms were sounded by the presidential camps over the seemingly apocalyptic changes in the weather. Obama did make some belated comments about the need to address climate change, while Romney – who in the past has joked about rising sea levels and threatened to dismantle the Federal Emergency Management Agency – had nothing substantive to add. When a heckler at a recent rally asked Romney about climate change, Romney let supporters drown him out with chants of “USA” as the unwelcome messenger was escorted from the event.
The point is this: Even if scientists have yet to prove to the most skeptical among us that global warming is a major concern, we do know for a fact that sea levels are rising, and no one in the campaign wanted to talk about that, or what coastal-protection measures we should take to protect people and infrastructure, or who will pay for it. This is a huge problem we are leaving for our children to solve, and the powers that be didn’t do us any favors by ignoring the subject.
Sadly, the presidential camps aren’t leading on the issue because politically that’s the easiest thing to do. The lack of political will and consensus over climate change has stifled constructive dialogue on the federal and state levels. North Carolina, for example, opted to punt when it passed a law forbidding any new state regulations based on sea level change until July 2016. What should be a scientific question is highly politicized.
Election Day is supposed to be about winners and losers, and the day after is supposed to be about the future and how to make it better. But our divisions define us; regardless of who wins, the next president will continue to work with a deeply divided and politicized Congress. Progress is a casualty of political gridlock.