A man walks through piles of debris that have not been removed by the Department of Sanitation outside of homes damaged from flooding that inundated the area during Hurricane Sandy in the Queens borough neighborhood of Belle Harbor, New York, November 8, 2012. Reuters/Lucas Jackson
The moment of the Republican National Convention that stands out for me was not Clint Eastwood’s conversation with a chair full of air. Rather, it was when Mitt Romney proudly purported to distinguish his agenda from that of President Obama. Vowing to take “full advantage of our oil and coal and gas,” he went on to make a remarkable contrast. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said, smirking and rolling his eyes while the audience roared with derisive laughter. “My promise…is to help you and your family.”
In truth, Obama’s track record of planetary healing hasn’t been all that great. But it was Romney’s sneering dismissiveness of the very thought that revisited me as Hurricane Sandy howled into New York City. I’ve had the same shudder of alarm during every hurricane over the last decade, regardless of who’s in charge, for the political absurdity feels as huge as the tragedies themselves: George W. Bush’s consulting with oil executives to develop climate change policy. Enduring indifference to American infrastructure. Sarah Palin’s anthem of “Drill, baby, drill!” The United States’ failure to sign on to even the weakest of climate change conventions, like the Kyoto Protocol.
Meanwhile, the last two decades have seen a pattern of planetary fever and chills. Studies establish that human activity is causally related to the melting of the Arctic ice, the collapse of fish stocks and the rapid rates of extinction within all classes of life forms. It’s not a question; it is fact.
After 9/11, planes were grounded for three days; since then, climatologists have wondered if a rare spike in the range of daytime and nighttime temperatures in the same period was due to the lack of jet engine “contrails” in the sky. Imagine if we had the political will to ground planes again to further test this phenomenon. Imagine if we had the will to ban driving one day a week.
But peacefully bringing the engines of industry to a halt is not going to happen, neither for experimentation nor for putative healing. In the meantime, we can fight over whether a state should be able to defy federal guidelines and dictate who can build more houses on their shores; whether earthquake disaster relief can be used for hurricane victims; whether one nation should rein in its pollution problem if another won’t do it first.
Or we could see this as a matter of the looming extinction of much of what sustains life forms such as ourselves. There’s much to suggest that unless we do something fast, air quality will continue to deteriorate, temperatures to rise, and oceans to become too acidic to support their present vibrant diversity.
Some argue that individual states and municipalities are better able to decide how to handle disasters, that more jobs will be created that way, serving more local businesses. But making states compete for resources in the face of environmental disasters that do not respect political or geographic boundaries is like having daylight savings time on Fifth Avenue but not on Sixth: it’s inefficient, confusing and costly. And it’s unfair. Most insurance policies don’t cover flood damage anymore, for example; if it’s economically rational for companies not to take that kind of risk, what kind of moral sense does it make for governments—charged with the public interest—not to fill that gap with some kind of safety net?