After a campaign in which climate change did not come up, and after the East Coast weathered a storm that, if it was not brought on by climate change, felt an awful lot like the storms that will be, the president of the United States finally nodded in its direction. It was not much. It was not even a whole sentence. But it felt like the first rain after a long drought. From Barack Obama’s victory speech:
“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
There it was—a sign that, although cap-and-trade legislation failed so wretchedly in Congress and although the Environmental Protection Agency has had to keep quiet about its work to limit carbon emissions, the president still remembers that climate change is a danger to this country. It is not clear that he is going to do anything about it, however: In his speech, he said his goals for his second term were “reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But since 2010, when the Senate gave up on passing a climate bill, it has seemed that politicians have forgotten how to talk about climate change ‑- or are too afraid to talk about it. If the country is ever going to deal with this threat, the first step is to start talking about it again.
Whether or not climate change made Sandy the beast it was, this latest storm was a preview of what global warming has in store for us ‑ big storms, with big storm surges, made worse by rising sea levels. But there will be no Pearl Harbor for climate change ‑ no one event that will allow a president to get on television the next day and say: Climate change has officially breached American defenses. Now, it’s personal. Climate change will not play out like an action movie. (Other than that one time it did.)
Instead, climate change is more like an insurgent group that will not take credit for its attacks. It is a dangerous enemy, but when it strikes, it is hard to pin down, immediately, who is to blame. The best intelligence on its movements is no good. Analysts are sure it will strike—but they cannot predict when. When the attacks come, they might suspect climate change, but they have to press hard on their best sources—data, climate models, historical trends—to know for sure. And how do the people without access to those sources know whether to trust the analysts? Enough bad luck and bad weather comes around that it is easy to believe that at least some of these disasters are random incidents.