Oh Sandy

Hurricane Sandy: The Last Straw on Climate Change

The deniers have been beaten by Sandy. The question now: what do we do?

Mike Groll / AP Photo

Since I’ve spent the last 25 years writing about climate change, I have some sense of the ebb and flow of the issue, from the moment in 1988 when George H.W. Bush promised to ‘fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect’ to the 2006 debut of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on the subject. But I have the sense that today, in the grim wake of Sandy, we may have reached some kind of … sea change doesn’t seem quite the right image, given this week’s events. Watershed? Turn of the tide? Something important has happened.

There are two pieces of evidence. One is the cover of today’s issue of BusinessWeek, which says, in very large letters, above a picture of a flooded street, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” In a straightforward accompanying piece, Paul Barrett catalogues the arguments from both the scientific labs and the insurance companies about why Sandy comes as no surprise. Sure, he says, it’s all complex, but “clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Sandy demands it.”

Now, I confess that BusinessWeek may mean more to me than to most people—my dad wrote for it for the first 15 years of my life, serving as Canadian and then Boston bureau chief. It was always serious, a magazine for businesspeople. (In those days, for businessmen.) That it is telling the unvarnished truth on its cover says to me that Sandy has driven this message out of the environmental eddies and into the mainstream.

Second piece of evidence: the Fox newscast this morning, where a reporter tried to grapple with Andrew Cuomo’s forthright declaration that “anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.” She says, sure, everyone agrees that the planet is warming, but the problem is “there’s no consensus on what’s causing it. Is it solar flares, is it the Mars wobbles, is it the earth’s axis tilting in a different way? I mean, that’s the issue.” (She’s soon joined by a colleague who adds his own reporting: “when the Eric the Red left Greenland, the only reason he had to leave was because of the little ice age.”)

I know that the point of Fox News is to provide fodder for The Daily Show.

But usually at least they try—they’ve been running specials for years featuring the same tiny band of climate deniers, gamely offering up their dog-eared and out-of-date studies in service to the fossil fuel industry. But “Mars wobbles?” It almost sounds like they’ve given up. It’s like they’re just doing Jon Stewart’s work for him without any need for Comedy Central.

No doubt the fossil-fuel industry—the richest industry on earth, and most politically powerful—will fight back. (Just last week Chevron gave the largest corporate political donation since Citizen’s United, $2.5 million to a rightwing Super-PAC). But this feels kind of like the day when all the tobacco executives trotted up to Capitol Hill and raised their hands to swear that they’d been doing the Lord’s work back at Philip Morris and RJR. It feels like the day when normal people—not just science-obsessed enviros—start shaking their heads at the mugs who stand up for the fossil-fuel industry.

Acknowledging reality is a pretty low bar, of course, and it will take far more than that to get anything done. (At 350.org, environmental-change organization, we’re launching a nationwide roadshow next Wednesday designed to spur a movement for divestment from the fossil fuel companies.) But at least reality is out of Mars orbit; at least we’re finally getting down to earth on climate.