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In My Words: Sandy brings climate change back for discussion

In the wake of a devastating storm, faculty members Michael Strickland and Janet MacFall say now is the time for lawmakers to hold serious debates.

Michael Strickland and Janet MacFall

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The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the (Asheville, N.C.) Citizen-Times, and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Superstorm Sandy brings climate change back for discussion
By Michael Strickland (mstrickl@elon.edu) and Janet MacFall (macfallj@elon.edu)

One of the most conspicuously absent topics in the 2012 presidential campaign was climate change. Only mentioned with the utmost care and rarity by the Obama team, and used solely as a laugh line by Romney at the convention in Tampa, climate was the pariah of political issues.

Until recently. Now, post Superstorm Sandy, the public is questioning if extreme weather is yet another symptom of a changing planet. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it as he toured the devastation, “Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality." A week later, a powerful nor’easter walloped the same victims, bringing heavy snow and freezing temperatures to thousands still without power.

Though the Tar Heel State escaped Sandy relatively unscathed, once again N.C. Highway 12 was breached, several times, along the northern tendril of Hatteras Island. Storms such as Irene in 2011 and Sandy last month, which only raked our coast, have wreaked enormous damage with sobering social impact.

But in our statewide political discussions? Nothing. We discuss jobs and drilling for oil off our treasured coastline but none of the hard questions that Sandy has posed.

Strangely, if we look back at recent election cycles, the discussion of “global warming” was never so closeted. It wasn’t just Al Gore with his “Inconvenient Truth” warning us about increased carbon in our atmosphere and retreating glaciers. In 2008, John McCain was not afraid to discuss the implications of climate change, and it was one of the few issues that he and opponent Barack Obama agreed on!

Why the silence in 2012? This will be a rich topic for political scientists to study, but the answers will likely include the influx of vast sums of influence money that have impacted the election in ways unseen. Much of this money is from sources with a vested interest in squelching climate debate.

A mistake often made is confusing weather with climate. One superstorm does not necessarily indicate a dire change in climate. Perhaps Sandy was “the storm of the century,” but there have been similar storms, such as those in 1821 and 1938. Climate equals weather patterns over time. What climate scientists look for is trends and significant changes in the expected patterns of weather. The more closely these trends align, and the more likely the overall climate is changing.

The waters of the Caribbean are warmer than normal for this time of year. Melting Arctic ice contributed to the cold front that changed the storm’s direction and intensity. We must evaluate the data and trends of a changing climate, and more realistically accept predictions of the altered climate to come, which include heat waves, droughts and changed patterns of intense rainfall and snow.

The scientific consensus is in. Climate change is here. The questions still open for debate include: How much of this is caused by humans? How rapid and intense will patterns of increasing global temperature, rising sea levels, and altered rainfall patterns actually be? And, perhaps most importantly: What can be done, if anything? But we are not having this public discussion. Yet.

Sandy shows we cannot afford to keep climate change out of the public discourse and indeed should elevate it to the top tier of issues. Perhaps when Obama listed the threats of “a warming planet” in his acceptance speech, it was a signal that climate change is back on the table.

Michio Kaku, a prolific science writer and theoretical physicist, was one of those scientists who was once a climate skeptic but is a recent convert to the vast majority who are concerned about climate change. He openly admits he had a hard time accepting that humans could have an impact on something as complex as climate, but he now warns that we should get used to extreme storms, floods and droughts as the new normal.

What would such a new normal mean for North Carolina? Do we continue to rebuild N.C. Highway 12 after each storm, or do we transition to some roadless areas? Do we pay more attention to the scientific data, or deny its relevance to our coastal insurance regulations? Do we slow down or even halt development along our fragile barrier islands altogether, or enact new stringent building codes that reflect the changing climate that recent storms seem to be signaling?

Or do we bury our heads in the sand? With renewed focus from Washington and a fresh administration heading toward Raleigh, we should expect open discussion.

Michael Strickland holds joint appointments in the departments of English and environmental studies. Janet MacFall holds joint appointments in environmental studies and biology.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
11/26/2012 11:03 AM