Editorial: US must see Sandy as climate alarm

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Debris from an amusement park destroyed during Superstorm Sandy lines the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. Photo / AP
Debris from an amusement park destroyed during Superstorm Sandy lines the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. Photo / AP

Focus on superstorm's impact on presidential race may blind American electorate to even bigger issue of global warming

It is always telling when carefully prepared scripts have to be tossed aside to deal with the unexpected. So it was in the United States this week ... Our view

Political candidates are always wary of events from left field that unhinge their campaigns at the most pivotal of moments. It is always telling when carefully prepared scripts have to be tossed aside to deal with the unexpected. So it was in the United States this week as President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, had to suspend their campaigning only a week before Wednesday's polling day.

As the weather monster known as Sandy battered the the northeast, a whole new element enveloped the closely contested presidential race.

President Obama sped back to Washington, keen to be seen as a leader in command of the situation. Still fresh in the memory was George W. Bush's limp reaction to Hurricane Katrina's onslaught on New Orleans, a response that forever tainted his presidency. This could be either an opportunity or a catastrophe for President Obama depending on his performance and the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As a huge clean-up moved into gear, he had reason for satisfaction. His response had been dexterous and decisive, not least in declaring New York, Long Island and New Jersey major disaster areas, thus accelerating the flow of federal relief funds. Applause for his handling of the crisis extended even to the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was so impressed that he declared his support for the President.

Mr Romney, for his part, was denied exposure and had little option but to twiddle his fingers. As vital days slid by, he could only ponder the cost of lost momentum.

Worldwide, most people saw Sandy less in terms of the presidential campaign but as an another awe-inspiring example of nature's power. But there was also a palpable sense of irony. Both the President and his challenger had failed to mention climate change during their presidential debates.

This had led naturalist Sir David Attenborough to suggest that it would take a terrible example of extreme weather to wake the American people, in particular, up to the dangers of global warming.

It is problematic to draw too direct a link between specific weather events such as Sandy and climate change.

Climate scientist Jim Salinger says global warming has stacked the deck of cards, making super storms of this kind more likely. But he also noted that Sandy had similarities to Cyclone Giselle, which struck New Zealand back in 1968, causing the sinking of the Wahine.

Its ferocity was equal to that of Sandy but it spent itself on a small country, not an area occupied by 60 million people.

Nonetheless, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year on increasing deaths and damage from weather and climate-related disasters.

It also noted lengthier droughts in many countries. Further to the grist of climate scientists, Sandy had its own unusual features, penetrating an area far north of that usually affected by such storms.

It is unlikely, however, that Americans will make the connection sought by Sir David. As with much of the rest of the world, they are distracted by ongoing economic crisis. Against this background, climate change and developments such as this month's talks in Doha on post-2012 Kyoto Protocol targets seem remote and abstract.

Sandy may, however, have changed their view on the destiny of the candidates involved in an especially intense presidential race.

- NZ Herald

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