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Climate issue heats up after Sandy

MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Chris Hayes, host of "Up with Chris Hayes" about the impact of Hurricane Sandy and talk of climate change.


The climate change issue has been virtually a non-issue during the presidential campaign — but it's primed to take a higher profile after the elections, in part due to Hurricane Sandy's horrific aftermath. At least that's the view of Shawn Lawrence Otto, one of the founders of ScienceDebate.org and author of "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science of America."

Otto focused on climate politics during Wednesday night's installment of "Virtually Speaking Science," a talk show airing online and in the Second Life virtual world. You can hear an archived version of the hourlong program, hosted by yours truly, via the BlogTalkRadio archive or iTunes.

Hurricane Sandy already has re-energized the debate over the global effects of escalating greenhouse-gas emissions.


On one side, experts point to the fact that this season's warmer seas helped the storm keep up its strength as it moved northward, and that higher sea levels added to the strength of Sandy's storm surge. Such conditions are expected to be more common if current climate trends continue. On the other side, skeptics point out that Sandy's strength was in line with extreme storms of the past. For more on the back-and-forth over Sandy specifically, check out this posting by Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard and this one by Dot Earth's Andrew Revkin — and be sure to follow the Web links.

Otto sides with those who believe Hurricane Sandy will bring the climate debate back into the spotlight.

"I do think that, moving forward, it may be a watershed moment, so to speak," Otto told me on "Virtually Speaking Science." However, he acknowledged that the same claim could have been made for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which didn't end up moving the dial appreciably on attitudes toward climate change.

Hurricane Sandy may not make voters more amenable to cap-and-trade schemes or a carbon tax, but it's more likely to highlight the flip side of climate policy: how to adapt to potential impacts and encourage climate-conscious innovation. More people are talking about the cost vs. benefit of storm surge barriers for the New York metro area, for example. Insurers may add disincentives for coastal development, in anticipation of higher sea levels or more frequent extreme storms. The federal government may provide more support for energy technologies that cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions.

That's basically GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's strategy on the climate issue. In his response to ScienceDebate.org's questionnaire, he said he favored "robust government funding" for research into low-emission, high-efficiency industrial technologies. He maintained that this kind of "No Regrets" policy would benefit America "regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize, and regardless of whether other nations take effective action."

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has long championed the development of renewable-energy technologies as a way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, even if such efforts have occasionally gotten him into trouble. An example of that is the controversy over Solyndra, a solar-panel company that went bankrupt after receiving more than a half-billion dollars in government-backed loans.

Otto speculates that Obama may have a freer hand to pursue climate initiatives if he wins a second term — and that post-Sandy reconstruction may serve as a rallying point for political allies.

There's some evidence this is already coming to pass: Just today, New York City's independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, cited the climate challenge and the lessons from the superstorm as reasons for endorsing Obama.

"The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast – in lost lives, lost homes and lost business – brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief," Bloomberg wrote. "Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week's devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

Bloomberg said Obama was taking major steps to reduce carbon emissions, while Romney abandoned "the very cap-and-trade program he once supported."

The mayor's endorsement probably won't have much impact on the vote in New York, a state that's as solidly in Obama's column as any state could be. But does it hint at a major change in the political climate?

For more food for thought, watch this archived video from a Capitol Hill debate between Obama surrogate Kevin Knobloch and Republican Mike Castle, who served two terms as Delaware governor and nine terms in Congress. The debate, titled "After Sandy: Climate Change, Science and the Next Four Years," was moderated by Otto and Climate Desk Live's Chris Mooney.

Update for 8:30 p.m. ET: The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg sees deep significance in Bloomberg's endorsement, suggesting that it "turned climate change from liability into a potentially winning political issue in this presidential election," and may embolden Republicans who secretly support action on the climate issue to "come out of the closet." Do you agree? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

More from 'Virtually Speaking Science':


"Virtually Speaking Science" is hosted in Second Life by the Caltech Virtual Astronomy Group. The Exploratorium's Paul Doherty will be my guest on Dec. 5 for a VSS program looking back at the year's astronomical highlights and looking ahead to 2013.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.