Opinion: Strange Weather and Stranger Politics

Michael Catania | November 14, 2011 | Opinion
The most passionate argument for climate change? The weather of the past three months.

If anyone had any doubts that climate change is real, the weird weather of the past few months should give them pause.

On August 28, Hurricane Irene made landfall near Little Egg Harbor, the first hurricane to do so in the Garden State since 1903. It was preceded by rains of almost biblical proportion, making August — usually our hottest and driest month — the wettest month on record.

A saturated September followed, and mopping up after so-called 50- and 100-year floods only months apart became a way of life for too many New Jerseyans. Then an October snowstorm caused so much devastation that some schools in north Jersey used up their entire budget of snow days by November 1, while roads were cleared and widespread power outages were slowly restored.

You would think that these events would drive an aggressive set of new public policies at the state and federal level to address this obvious crisis. You might even think we would see special sessions of the state legislature and Congress devoted to addressing what has to be one of the most serious threats we have ever faced.

You would be wrong.

Gridlock on the federal level has stalled an initiative on climate change. On the state level we seem to be running flat out — in the wrong direction.

First, the governor pulls us out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 10-state coalition to cap carbon emissions and fund state and local energy conservation and other actions to respond to climate change. Then he dismantles the DEP Office of Climate Change and decides that having a state goal of 30 percent renewable energy is not necessary, and scales it down to 22.5 percent. And now, for good measure, he is threatening to stop collecting the remaining Societal Benefits Charge (SBC) on utility bills. That will eliminate the remaining energy conservation and renewable energy incentives, while making it easier for all of us to do the very things that produce more of the greenhouse gases that are obviously exacerbating climate change.

And what is the reason that the governor — and for that matter most Congressional and state legislative Republicans — are so averse to acting to address climate change more aggressively? They claim that we need to get government off our backs, and that we must reduce taxes and government spending to allow business to create jobs and restart our faltering economy.

I find myself wondering why the untold millions in damages suffered by both New Jersey residents and New Jersey businesses as a direct result of climate change are not a part of the political calculus here. This isn’t just penny wise and pound foolish; it is penny wise and metric ton foolish.

I also wonder how we can possibly address this issue successfully if our elected officials and our federal and state governments do not take the lead on this.

I am reminded of what Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid when he refused to jump off a cliff into a raging river to avoid a posse because he couldn’t swim: “Drown? The fall will probably kill you!”

The fall — and our illogical and politically motivated fear of having government take appropriate and timely action — is indeed killing both our environment and our economy.

Perhaps the real mistake we made was to refer to this phenomenon as “global warming.” That unfortunate term has allowed skeptics to insist that this is all just a natural cycle, and nothing to be concerned about.

True, the vast majority of scientists do indeed believe we are experiencing a significant overall warming trend brought on by manmade greenhouse gases, one that is a serious mid- to long-term threat to humanity. But we might be better off focusing on what we are dealing with in the short term — the increasingly aberrant weather extremes that are the most telling symptom of climate change.

As we are learning all too quickly, the problem with aberrant weather is that unexpected problems leave us completely unprepared.

One example is that trees still in leaf when we get a foot of snow break more easily and take down more power lines. Another is that farmers who grow Halloween pumpkins and other crops depend on having adequate rainfall, but suffer huge losses when it comes in 20-inch torrents.

The scariest part is that these events are just beginning to unfold, and we haven’t even gotten to the really tough problems yet, like the predicted rise in sea level that threatens to devastate the shore economy.

Time to act is running out. I’m not sure what our Governor and many of his Republican colleagues at both the state and federal level need to see happen before they will agree to take real action to address the adverse impacts of climate change — perhaps a plague of locusts?

Ultimately, our children are going to wonder why we did not do more to address climate change when we had the chance. I’m not sure what we are going to tell them.

It has already been a very long fall, but, somehow, I think it is going to be an even longer winter.

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