5 Big Takeaways From Hurricane Sandy
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Sandy sent a loud message to America in the form of 100-mile per hour winds and 13-foot high flood tides. The devastating Frankenstorm has not only shifted the physical landscape in some communities, it has shifted the national conversation on a number of pressing topics.
1. Climate Change
In late October, New Yorkers got a glimpse what the future holds if the country continues the ostrich approach to climate change. So impossible to ignore was this vision that Mayor Michael Bloomberg surprised everyone by endorsing Obama for president as the candidate most likely to take on the climate threat:
“Our climate is changing…One [candidate] sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”
Suddenly, the veil of silence on the topic that had enveloped most of the election season lifted. Obama ended up calling for a robust response to global warming in his victory speech. Al Gore is now pressing the prez to include climate change in upcoming budget negotiations with the GOP. The carbon tax idea is back.
A post-Sandy Rasmussen poll shows that a whopping 68 percent of American voters said that global warming is either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. That number is an all-time high.
While George Will blathers on like a deluded member of the Flat Earth Society, the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do now that it’s obvious that rising sea levels, intense heat waves, and more frequent destructive storms are here to stay. Environmental advocates, think tanks, universities, and energy lobbyists are holding conferences and releasing research.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, put it simply: "If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it." The question is: Will dysfunctional D.C. respond?
Sandy cast the woeful state of our public infrastructure into sharp relief – and forced us to take an unpleasant look in the mirror. The spectacle of inhabitants of the most densely populated city in America struggling without power, communication, or transportation shocked the rest of the world, and led Germany’s Spiegel online to conclude that the state of New York was an indication “that America is no longer the great, robust global power it once was.”
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-08, America could have been mobilized for a great, New Deal-style infrastructure effort that would bring the country in line with other wealthy, industrialized nations. But the pervasive, wrong-headed focus on short-sighted austerity over long-term investments nixed that opportunity.
Obviously, Mother Nature is oblivious to our political games, and Sandy has highlighted the urgency of finally getting our act together.
We can’t prepare for catastrophic natural events unless we have roads and bridges that stand up to the stress caused by major storms. And we desperately need to build protective infrastructure like water surge barriers in coastal areas and to protect wetlands and sand dunes that serve as natural barriers.
State and city governments need Congress to appropriate resources that enable them to assess conditions and get to work on measures including burying power lines, protecting power plants and substations, storm-proofing critical facilities, and enhancing drainage systems. The idea of an infrastructure bank to fund large-scale public works projects like grid modernization has long been stuck in political third gear, but interest has been thankfully reignited. A far-reaching plan to finance infrastructure projects would be transformative both to the economy and to America’s reputation as a world leader.
3. Renewable Energy
Nothing underscores our reliance on outdated energy technology like stumbling around in the darkness during a monster storm.
The need to curb planet-warming emissions is clear, and we will have to invest more resources and research into forms of energy that don’t require combustible fuels to generate electricity. Compared to ancient wires strung on wooden poles that can be taken out by a falling tree, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are both resilient and relatively safe. Unlike nuclear plants, you don’t have to worry that they will leak radiation as they did in Japan’s recent tsunami disaster.
Currently, non-fossil fuels are expensive, unavailable in sufficient quantities, and often face formidable hurdles. A recently-released documentary, Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle, focuses on the maniacal resistance to clean energy in the form of a long-delayed wind farm project in Nantucket Sound that well-heeled residents -- including both the Koch Brothers and the Kennedys -- sought to quash when they put pristine views ahead of planetary health. The film showed how the simplicity of wind turbine designs make them hardy in the face of natural disasters, a fact that was demonstrated with news that Cuban wind farms had passed the Sandy test with flying colors.
A recent report by the International Energy Agency which projects that the U.S. will replace Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer by 2020 due to new technologies like fracking has led to fantasies that “energy independence” in a global market is possible (it isn’t) and that renewables won’t be necessary (they will). According to the IEA report, renewables will become the second-largest source of electricity generation by 2015, cutting current energy demand by a fifth. Unless we want climate change on steroids, we'll need to support renewable energy to drive its costs down and create user incentives. And of course, in the midst of an unemployment crisis, new jobs from clean energy would add a new source of economic vitality for the nation.
The need for smart regulation of the telecom industry and public utilities became painfully apparent in the wake of Sandy.
New Yorkers –some in need of emergency assistance -- found their cell phones useless and their Internet connections dead just when they needed them most. Even a landline was no guarantee of connectivity. Clearly, such a risk to human life is intolerable. Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski has acknowledged that the storm exposed weaknesses that regulators will have to address, including backup-power for cellphone towers.
The problem is that wireless networks, which developed in the feverish post-Reagan anti-regulatory climate, are not governed by sensible rules. It’s now crystal clear that the telecom and cable industries will not make the necessary investments in preparation or response to natural disasters unless they are forced to do so. Since Katrina, regulators have been battling phone companies in court trying to get them to make changes in the name of public safety. As David Rosen has pointed out on Counterpunch, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been working hard behind the scenes to push for the privitazation of communications systems. Yet it should be obvious to anyone but a staunch Tea Partier that a profit-driven private sector is not up to the task of dealing with natural catastrophes and other national emergencies.
5. Public Workers
You’d be hard-pressed to find any Americans who have been assaulted so continually in the political arena since the financial crisis as public workers. The recession has been used as an excuse to rob them of their pensions, cut their wages, and cruelly demonize them.
But when disaster strikes, suddenly we desperately need them. The storm highlighted the critical role played by first responders, maintenance workers, educators, garbage collectors, healthcare professionals, police and myriad other public employees. During the storm and after, these workers, many of them union members, provided critical rescue and relief efforts, often mounting heroic efforts in dangerous conditions. Nurses and health aides represented by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, an affiliate of the Federation of Nurses/UFT, for example, waded through floodwaters to reach homebound patients, walking up multiple flights of stairs in the darkness to help save lives.
Members of the International Association of Firefighters battled massive storm-related fires, sometimes standing in neck-deep water while doing so.
These people deserve more than our thanks. They deserve our support when greedy Wall Street profiteers and their political puppets seek to diminish their benefits and kill their ability to collectively bargain for fair compensation and decent working conditions.