When Mitt Romney wanted to find a way to help respond to Hurricane Sandy, his campaign decided that it would be a good idea to head to a “relief center” and package up a few cans of Campbell's soup.
While there’s nothing wrong with Campbell’s, this isn’t the type of response that a crisis like Hurricane Sandy requires. Never mind that the Red Cross would prefer cash donations rather than canned goods (actually, do mind that, and then go donate here). The real problem is that along with his cans of soup, Governor Romney is also offering the American people something much more dangerous: an energy plan that would keep us burning more fossil fuels, leading to more climate change, and more extreme weather like Hurricane Sandy.
The science is increasingly clear: Climate change is causing more extreme weather. By heating up the average temperature of the planet, global warming puts more energy into storms. As a number of scientists have put it, pumping more carbon into the atmosphere is like putting the planet on steroids. Just like a juiced up hitter won’t always hit a homerun, not every storm will turn into a hurricane. But, the more pollution we put in, the more likely we’ll see a grand slam like Hurricane Sandy.
There are a number of other ways that climate change influences hurricanes in particular. Since warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is about 4 percent wetter than it was in 1970, leading to heavier rain falls that make flooding more likely. Storm surges also now ride on sea levels that have risen over the last century due to global warming, amplifying flooding losses where the surge strikes. In the Northeast United States, sea levels are rising up to four times faster than the global average, making this area even more vulnerable to flooding.
And if you were thinking that it was a bit strange that a sub-tropical cyclone was able to get all the way up to Northeast in late October, there’s a climate connection there too. Right now, sea surface temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast are about 5 degrees above average, which helps keep the storm powered up and load moisture into the system, fueling heavy rain. September had the second highest global ocean temperatures on record.
So, what are our politicians doing about the problem? While a discussion of global warming was mostly absent from the presidential election—the words “climate change” didn’t appear in a presidential debate for the first time since 1988—the topic of sea level rise did come up once. It was part of a laugh line at the Republican National Convention, when Romney criticized President Obama for promising to “slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” As Bill Clinton put it in Minneapolis on Tuesday, “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could’ve done that yesterday.”
Perhaps it’s little surprise that climate change has all but disappeared from the public agenda. The fossil fuel industry has spent over $150 million this election cycle to keep up the climate silence. Just last week, Chevron made the largest single corporate political donation since the Citizens United decision, giving $2.5 million to a pro-GOP SuperPAC. Together with the hundreds of millions the industry spends on lobbying during the regular calendar year, this tidal wave of money has been enough to drown out any Congressional attempts at real climate action.
Which is why, when it comes to the question of how to respond to Hurricane Sandy once we’ve donated to immediate disaster relief, the answer is: find new ways to challenge the fossil fuel industry.
Unless we can begin to weaken the stranglehold that Big Oil, Coal, and Gas have over our economy and our democracy, we won’t be able to see the type of rapid fossil fuel phase-out necessary to prevent further climate catastrophe. Even the most conservative governments in the world have agreed that we must limit global warming to no more to 2 degrees and scientists have calculated that we can only burn 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in order to stay below the target. But the fossil fuel industry has 2795 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in their reserves, nearly five times too much—and everyday they’re spending millions of dollars looking for more.
The industry is going to fight tooth and nail to turn this carbon below ground into money above ground, so we need to find creative ways to fight back. This fall, 350.org is launching a fossil fuel divestment campaigns to go directly at the industry’s bottom line. The effort will start on college campuses, but quickly needs to spread to religious institutions, pension funds, and personal investments. We’re kicking off the effort with a big nationwide tour called Do The Math, which you can sign up for here.
Along with divestment, we need to go after the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate. During the 1990s, health advocates successfully isolated the tobacco industry by combining grassroots campaigns, smart advertising, and political lobbying. Slowly but surely, smoking began to transform from something that made you cool to something that killed you. Remember when the Big Tobacco executives got dragged before Congress and lied about nicotine being addictive? Well, it’s time to drag some Big Oil CEOs onto the stand to see what they’ll say about climate change.
Finally, we need to find innovative ways to free our own communities from fossil fuels. This is where the GOOD community in particular can help take a lead. Together, we’re finding new ways to do everything from transforming urban agriculture into an art form to saving billions of dollars in health costs by promoting local biking. Exciting new efforts like Mosaic are offering people ways to put their money into reliable, local solar projects rather than ship it off to be gambled on Wall Street.
Coming together as a community not only helps address climate change, it helps prepare us for the impacts that we can’t avoid. My 350.org colleagues in Brooklyn, for example, have teamed up with a group of activists from Occupy Wall Street to use a new tool called Recovers.org to help coordinate bottom-up, grassroots disaster relief and community recovery.
Who knows, maybe they’ll even pull together some sort of canned goods drive and invite Governor Romney. In the meantime, it’s high-time for our politicians, and all of us, to connect the dots between extreme weather events like Hurricane sandy, climate change, and the root of the problem: the fossil fuel industry.
Jamie Henn is a co-founder and communications director for the international climate campaign 350.org.