Sandy a galvanizing moment for climate change?


One Sunday afternoon in 1969 the filthy, oil-coated Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and quickly became a potent symbol of industrial pollution, helping galvanize public opinion and set the stage for passage of national environmental laws the following decade.

The combination of Hurricane Sandy and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he was endorsing President Obama largely because of Obama’s actions on global warming could do the same thing for climate change, say scientists and political observers.

“This may be that sort of Cuyahoga River moment for climate change,” said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and Penn State University professor. “It has galvanized attention to this issue and the role that climate change may be playing with regard to the intensification of extreme weather.”


PHOTOS: Super storm Sandy

Coming on the heels of this summer’s crop-withering drought in the Midwest and destructive wildfires in the West, Sandy provided a glimpse of what scientists say the nation can expect with global warming. Even before surging floodwaters choked Manhattan subway tunnels and left parts of the Jersey Shore in shambles, public acceptance of climate change was growing.

More than half of Americans now believe that climate change caused by human activity is occurring, and 58% say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about it, according to a September poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

“After this crazy weather we’ve been having the last several years — Irene last year, Sandy this year, the drought, the fires, floods — it’s getting more and more difficult for people to deny what everybody sees with their own eyes,” said New York climate scientist Scott Mandia, coauthor of a book on the rising sea level. “I think people are starting to connect the dots.”

FULL COVERAGE: Super storm Sandy hammers Northeast

Bloomberg’s Thursday endorsement of Obama thrust to the political forefront a topic that has been largely ignored this election season, eclipsed by concerns about jobs and the economy.

“Our climate is changing,” Bloomberg wrote in his endorsementposted online. “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.”

Coming from a wealthy businessman and a political independent, Bloomberg’s focus on climate change could influence the thinking of Americans on the fence about global warming, said Joshua Freed, head of the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank.

“He’s a capitalist, a different type of person talking about climate change than an environmentalist or yet another elected official,” Freed said.

Sandy’s pummeling of the country’s biggest metropolitan region made the effects of global warming real in a way that the melting of distant polar ice caps or the acidification of the world’s oceans can’t.

“It is of course true that you can’t say that climate change created Sandy,” said Mann, whose recent book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines” chronicles the war over climate science.

But “Sandy was sitting on top of an ocean that in the vicinity of the New Jersey coast and the New York Harbor is a foot higher than it was a century ago because of sea level rise,” Mann said. “So when we saw that record-breaking coastal surge of over 13 feet [in lower Manhattan], at least one of those 13 feet was due to global sea level rise.”

TV footage of floodwaters swallowing the entrances to New York’s subway system is bound to leave an impression in the national consciousness, said Cara Horowitz, executive director of UCLA’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment. “I think you can’t overstate the value of those images constantly barraging the American public.”

Science policy analyst and University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. disagrees. “I’m pretty sure by Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg and Sandy will probably be a back-page story,” said Pielke, author of “The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming.”

“The disaster du jour” doesn’t spark the kind of sustained political support necessary to foster action on climate change, he said. “Disasters are quite normal in general. To try and make the case to people that we have an unusual or large number is kind of a hard case to make.”

He added that his research has concluded there is no evidence that human-caused climate change has increased the toll of recent disasters when adjusted for rises in population and the nation’s gross domestic product.

Other analysts also cautioned that Hurricane Sandy and the Bloomberg endorsement may not achieve as much as environmentalists and climate scientists hope in terms of political action.

With his Northeast pedigree and support of liberal causes like gun control, Bloomberg is not the kind of conservative icon whose acceptance of climate change could shake up the thinking of hard-core climate contrarians in red states and in the GOP.

Regardless of who is in the White House next year, Congress’ dysfunction dims any chances for significant change. Polls suggest that the next Congress could look like this one, with a Democratic Senate and a House of Representatives controlled by conservative Republicans.

The interest in climate “is a transient phenomenon at best. There’s more interest in improving safety in the face of extreme weather,” said Kenneth Green, resident scholar on energy and environmental issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Still, some small shifts could occur in Sandy’s wake among GOP members of Congress from blue states, said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“They can see Michael Bloomberg” and New Jersey’s Republican governor and Mitt Romney backer “Chris Christie holding hands with the Democrats now, and it will affect Republican representatives from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and even California,” Markey said. “They’ll have a much more difficult time in saying climate change isn’t happening, and it will make it harder for them to align their voting with coal state representatives.”

Boxall reported from Los Angeles and Banerjee from Washington.