Hurricane Sandy's devastating intrusion into the final days of the presidential race would have at least one positive result if it inspired President Obama and Mitt Romney to finally address a huge issue they have ignored throughout the long campaign: climate change.
After the firestorms that swept the West amid a merciless drought and the killer tornadoes and freak storms that battered the Midwest, South and East Coast, Sandy is just 2012's latest screaming reminder that our weather is becoming a much more destructive force. Sandy is an example of a weather phenomenon we have not seen before -- a confluence of hurricane, cold air and an altered jet stream that created a monster storm stretching from the Caribbean to Canada and from the Atlantic to Chicago.
Until recently, climate scientists were careful not to attribute any single weather event to global climate change. But, in the last couple of days, a number of scientists have filed Twitter posts that essentially say, "We told you so." For years, they have described what the effects of global warming would look like; this year, many of them are saying, "This is it."
While the rest of the world long ago moved beyond asking if climate change is real to accepting it as a fact, the United States has stalled in a ridiculous debate. Romney leads a party in which a majority believes that climate change is a hoax and the rest -- including Romney -- avoid talking about the issue, lest they be seen as anti-capitalist, bug-loving granola eaters. Obama could speak to the issue if he wished, but he avoids it too, perhaps not wanting to give the right-wingers another reason to accuse him of plotting against America.
The issue cannot be skirted forever, though. Members of Congress can rant on about hoaxes and nefarious plots to destroy industry by curtailing CO2 emissions, but one day not too distant, even the science deniers will be unable to deny that a big bill is coming due. Rising sea levels, extended drought, raging wildfires and more frequent and more violent storms will have a huge economic cost.
Already, insurance companies are eyeing the exits, thinking that selling policies to cover natural disasters has become a very bad bet. When the insurance industry bails, government will have to pick up the expense of taking care of people who have been pummeled by weather and have lost homes, businesses and livelihoods as a result.
Cities and states face a big job ahead, dealing with floods, fires, shifting shorelines and paying for the manpower and infrastructure necessary to deal with those challenges. American agriculture will need to be revamped as farming and grazing land turns to dust in the heart of the country.
It is way past time for the federal government to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with all of this. And it is truly unconscionable that our presidential candidates have ignored the issue, other than to spout a few gaseous sound bites about clean energy and green jobs.