This election was the first since 1984 in which climate change was not discussed in any presidential debate. It seemed like it would take an act of God for climate change to be mentioned, and it seems like that's just what happened with Hurricane Sandy. The unprecedented destruction caused by the "Superstorm" prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that the increased frequency of extreme weather is caused by climate change, but his recognition of the challenges it presents did not go far enough.
At a news conference on October 30, he said, "Part of learning from [Hurricane Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable, and if we are going to do our job as elected officials we are going to need to make the modifications necessary so we don’t incur this type of damage."
He reiterated these sentiments to the press the next day, injecting climate change back into the national debate, to the rejoicing of concerned citizens everywhere. Cuomo's frank acknowledgement of this scientific reality is admirable. However, his statement hardly acknowledged the sweeping scope of what climate change is and what it demands of us.
The governor was, understandably, clearly aware that he was wading into what had been deemed a politically charged topic. He hedged his words: “People will debate whether there is climate change … that’s a whole political debate that I don’t want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political." Aside from this hedging, many people still understood that he was connecting devastating weather events to climate change.
What was indeed troubling was what he said we should do about climate change.
"We have an old infrastructure, we have old systems. That is not a good combination and that is one of the lessons I will take from this, personally.” Fair enough, but what of the causes of climate change? Cuomo’s glaring omission of greenhouse gases and our carbon-intensive energy system could only have happened in a country such as ours where "clean energy" is a politicized term.
We do, as a nation and a world, need to build and improve our infrastructure to withstand more extreme weather — these are recognized and relatively quantifiable challenges (even the threat to the New York subway system was known). But we also desperately need to focus on reducing the carbon intensity of our energy systems — and creating the technologies to allow the rest of the world to do the same.
Yet, political expediency is, like it or not, has a huge effect on what our elected leaders can and will do and say. However, some vital steps towards reducing our energy impacts can, in fact, be politically expedient. Energy efficiency saves customers — from homeowners to big businesses — big bucks on their energy. It's one of these win-win actions that politicians should promote through education and incentives. Investment in basic energy technology research is another win-win action. Better clean energy technology expertise creates jobs in the United States, in a sector where other countries, like China, are gaining ground on us. It also is the key to creating the zero-carbon energies of the future that will help sustain our ways of life for generations and generations to come.
There is no silver bullet, and these steps — infrastructure, efficiency and investment — are not a panacea; in the same way, Cuomo’s words are a start, but we need more. But these are starts that make sense in our political climate, when many of the bigger steps towards climate change reduction seem nearly impossible. We should embrace them, but not forget to push forward.