Hurricane Sandy has taken dozens of lives and inflicted enormous economic damage on the northeastern coast of the United States. It has also resurrected questions about the politically contentious link between climate change and extreme weather.
The Pentagon regards climate change as a national security threat and a scientific report prepared for the Obama Administration in 2009 forewarned of profound consequences for Americans if no action was taken. Since then there has been unprecedented melting of the Arctic summer sea ice and widespread drought has pushed up food costs.
Yet President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney ignored climate change during the presidential debates, the first time it has not been mentioned since Congress was briefed in 1988. The news media, generally, avoid describing any hurricane as a consequence of climate change. Scientists are careful to concede there are uncertainties. But scientists agree global warming has added moisture to the atmosphere. The resultant excess rainfall is a major source of hurricane damage. Global warming has raised sea levels, too, which explains why Sandy's storm surge flooded the New York City subway system.
But the caveats are vanishing. Mark Fischetti, a senior editor at Scientific American, says Sandy has emboldened more scientists to directly link climate change and storms without the hedging.
Our own government, perturbingly, is becoming more complacent about environmental issues. This week it said it is stopping publication of the five-yearly State of the Environment report, a comprehensive stock-take of trends relating to land, water, air, plants and animals.
The Climate Change Response Bill, moreover, has passed its second reading in Parliament. It further stalls the application of the emissions trading scheme to some sectors, including agriculture, and maintains the requirement for carbon emitters to pay for only half the cost of their emissions.
Green Party MP Kennedy Graham has said the Government is simply doing what other countries are doing, entitling us to claim we are doing our fair share.
If Sandy prompts the US Government to take more robust action (yes, it's a big if), Kiwi notions of doing our fair share would have to be hardened accordingly.