A week before the U.S. election, Mother Nature slammed the Caribbean and the eastern coast of North America. Over a hundred people were killed by Hurricane Sandy, and the damage to property and infrastructure is estimated at $50 billion.
The storm devastated the city of Santiago de Cuba, the Jersey Shore region, and parts of New York.
The catastrophe may have altered the U.S. campaign, bolstering Barack Obama at a crucial moment, and undermining Republican Mitt Romney, who had previously attacked the need for federal emergency relief measures.
Yet neither candidate addressed the full implications of this massive event. Hurricane Sandy appears to have moved the scientific community from the consensus that human economic activity is driving climate change, to agreement that such storms are already becoming bigger and deadlier.
NASA scientist James Hansen recently wrote in the Washington Post, "It is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."
To his credit, Barack Obama did mention climate change as "a threat to our children’s future". British environmental commentator George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, says this was virtually the only reference to climate change by either candidate.
Monbiot explained, "There are several ways in which the impacts of Hurricane Sandy are likely to have been exacerbated by climate breakdown. Warmer oceans make hurricanes more likely and more severe. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing the maximum rainfall. Higher sea levels aggravate storm surges. Sandy might not have hit the United States at all, had it not been for a blocking ridge of high pressure over Greenland, which diverted the storm westwards. The blocking high – rare there at this time of year – could be the result of the record ice melt in the Arctic this autumn."
This is not just "hindsight". Last February, the journal Nature Climate Change warned that global warming is likely to "increase the surge risk for New York City". As storms intensify and sea levels rise, storm surges described as 100‑year events would become between five and thirty times as frequent.
But when Obama took office in 2009, his strategists decided that climate change was too "controversial" to discuss. The President has talked about clean energy, green jobs and improved fuel economy, never explaining why these shifts are necessary.
This form of avoidance continued through a year of droughts and wildfires across the U.S. interior, the Arctic ice meltdown, and the superstorm that blasted the Caribbean and New York.
Big Oil, however, tackled the issue head-on, both directly and through its political surrogates. In the Republican platform, "climate change" was mentioned only to attack Obama for taking it seriously. The Republicans called for new coal projects, support for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and oil drilling on the outer continental shelf and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A coalition of green NGOs managed to raise $22 million for election lobbying, only to be outspent by Exxon, which poured $27 million (one-half of one day’s profits) into a counter‑campaign.
So what can be done?
As Canada’s David Suzuki writes, "The damage of climate change will get worse if we fail to act. And, it will devastate the one thing that many corporate and government leaders put above all else: that human creation we call the economy – the very excuse many of our leaders use to block environmental protection and climate action."
Suzuki points to some "relatively simple" steps: conserve energy, put a price on carbon through taxes and cap‑and‑trade, and shift from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources. He calls for reductions in auto use and air travel, and "shifting from rampant consumerism to a more conservative way of living." Rapid tar sands expansion, he says, is incompatible with action to stop global warming.
But in spite of Dr. Suzuki’s appeal to "rethink the ways we measure progress and govern our economies," he fails to name the elephant in the room: the capitalist economic system, which demands constant growth, more intense exploitation of labour power, and imperialist wars to seize natural resources.
The "rethink" we do need is a plan to put all energy resources under public ownership and democratic control, and a strategy to use those resources far more carefully to create an economy based on reduced fuel consumption. In other words, a socially-owned economy focused on the needs of people and the environment, not the corporate drive for maximum profits.
The measures urged by David Suzuki and other environmentalists are important reforms. But until the economic and political domination of the big capitalist monopolies is ended by working class power, a truly green, sustainable, peaceful, socialist future will remain out of our grasp. To meet the challenge posed by Hurricane Sandy and climate change, we need to build a powerful People’s Coalition, bringing together the organized labour movement, environmentalists, Aboriginal peoples, and all sections of the people whose lives are being sacrificed by Big Oil.
Kimball Cariou is the editor of People’s Voice