Which Political Leader Will Deal with “Weather on Steroids?"

Election '16

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

This week climate change went from political taboo to lead endorsement criteria for at least one elected official—New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, who endorsed Barack Obama in a BloombergView entitled “A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change.”

In his editorial, Bloomberg wrote that, “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.”

In the face of a genuine human, societal, and economic catastrophe, President Obama, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, and Bloomberg—all the front line public officials responsible for witnessing and addressing the full impact of Hurricane Sandy, have in different ways stepped beyond their comfort zones. The devastating impacts and enormous costs have forced these political leaders to recognize that for proper management and planning, politicians can no longer afford to dance around the climate change issue fearing to call a spade a spade in deference to the sensibilities of climate deniers and those who fund them.

Now the question is: Will any of these elected officials truly step up to become a leader in the New Green Growth Economy? And if they did, what might that look like?

Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo launched the Solutions Project nearly a year ago and has been working with Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, to plan a conversion to renewable energy.

“We have the same longitude and the same energy mix (of wind and solar energy) as Germany which is moving from its present rate of 20% towards getting 50% of its energy from renewables,” says Ruffalo. Using Germany as a model, with the right leadership, a state like New York or New Jersey could easily launch and emerge as a national leader in renewables.

In addition to creating 100,000 jobs, reducing health costs by lowering pollution levels, and protecting its existing industries, converting to renewables would “take a big bite of climate change, “ Ruffalo maintains. “New York is the center of media and finance, and can set an example to the country and the world.”

The question remains which if any of the leading politicians will recognize and act on this potential.

Chris Christie

As the Republican governor of hard-hit New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has garnered national media attention for his new alliance with President Obama. Although he introduced Mitt Romney at the Republican convention, the crisis has prompted him to all but endorse Obama, while not so subtly dissing Romney. If the President is re-elected to a second term, the unlikely Obama-Christie partnership could continue to display a sorely needed new model of bi-partisanship, if it extends beyond the immediate aftermath of the storm. This would position Christie as a strong contender for Republican nominee in 2016. The question— and a big one—is whether Christie, who is capable of forthrightness and stepping out of the box, will be willing to break ranks with Republicans to really stand up for the environment. As of now New Jersey has better solar incentives than New York.

Michael Bloomberg

As Mayor of New York City, business titan, media mogul, and independent, Bloomberg, whose mayoral term ends in 2013, has a unique insider-outsider position from which to take leadership and galvanize investment. Moreover, both his late date endorsement of Barack Obama, and his rationale for it, signal readiness to take this on. Obama “sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; (Romney) does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics,” said Bloomberg in his presidential endorsement.  

But Bloomberg is far from a progressive dream and a still a long-shot for true environmental leadership. One big red flag is Bloomberg’s $6 million investment (via a gift to the Environmental Defense Fund) to define “safe fracking regulations” – a move unpopular with many who think fracking can’t be done safely and should be banned. For Bloomberg to lead the new Green Growth Economy his championing of shale gas will bear reconsideration for two key reasons:

The plan to run gas pipelines through the very regions hardest hit by the storm—(the pipelines are now proposed to run from New Jersey under the Hudson River into lower Manhattan as well as other hard-hit areas) may need to be scrapped due to the high risks posed by a history of pipeline explosions and fires. The same concerns will apply to pipelining gas south through storm vulnerable Westchester and upstate New York.

The gas and oil companies, whose activities generate weather disruptive carbon emissions, lack a history of accountability for the downside risks they incur. But perhaps they would be more amenable to persuasion by a seasoned Wall Streeter such as Bloomberg.

Andrew Cuomo

As a popular governor likely to be elected for a second term, as well as a contender for the 2016 Presidential Democratic nomination, Governor Andrew Cuomo can have a major role if he wants it. As governor, he will receive and spend federal disaster relief monies dedicated to rebuilding of infrastructures. The question is whether he will have the kishkas (a Yiddish term for guts) to reshape New York as a leader of the New Green Economy. Cuomo took his first and laudable steps towards environmental leadership this past week, when he said that “I said to the president kiddingly the other day we have a 100-year flood every two years now.”

But Cuomo parsed his words more than did Mayor Bloomberg. Easing into the term “climate change,” in a briefing on Tuesday, Cuomo said that:

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.”

But speaking on the Rachel Maddow show, Cuomo stopped short of naming the cause when he mused,

“We can argue about whether the cause was human behavior or a cycle of weather patterns. But you can’t argue about the effect. Long term if you conclude its human behavior than you want to eliminate that activity. But we need to move forward rather than play ping pong in our political brain.”

Cuomo knows what it’s like to be in the middle of a ping pong game. As governor, he has deliberated about whether or not to allow fracking in New York, which is now on hold pending a health impacts assessment. But the ever more frequent “hundred year hurricanes” Cuomo cites will inevitably alter considerations about the extended population-wide impacts of fracking.

Many of the upstate regions with frackable shale gas are known flood zones. Changing weather and increased flooding increase the levels and reach of fracking chemicals migrating from drill sites into local streams, and rivers, as well as into underground drinking water and agricultural lands. This agriculture serves as one of New York State’s largest industries, as well as the source of much of New York City’s (and the Northeast region’s) local food supply.

The equation is simple: More extreme weather means more floods, which means more migration of fracking fluids and waste and therfore more people exposed to toxic industrial chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactivity.

Today and going forward, the Northeast region is facing the hard realities of what can happen when parsing politics around environmental concerns goes terribly wrong. Will Cuomo’s confrontation with this reality strengthen his resolve to step up to the opportunity to both protect and recreate a new Green Growth Economy for New York?

Looking Forward

Different regions of the Northeast Atlantic and of New York City and State have at different times borne the brunt of the last two years of hurricanes— Irene, Isaac, and now Sandy. Now that the political leaders at the city, state, and national level are forced to face up to a trend that requires a well-considered plan (rather than triage for a series of isolated incidents), they will inevitably need to look both at fixes and at causes—and educate people to do so as well.

Ultimately, the buck will stop with the President. Although President Obama has until now been a less environmentally activated president than many have hoped, that could change in a second term with the mandate provided by this crisis. Four years ago, as President-Elect, Barack Obama had to deal with a global economic crisis. Now there’s an environmental one. Although no political leader can single handedly stem the rise of the oceans or heal the earth, as Obama hopefully promised to do during the Democratic Party Convention, at the very least they can believe that they should make every attempt to do so, rather than cynically laughing about it as people at the Republican convention were encouraged to do by Mitt Romney.

For any of the elected officials considering where to start, Mark Ruffalo likes increasing community-owned solar because it confers “true energy independence” by allowing people to both meet their immediate energy needs and to sell excess energy. (As an added benefit, its use would also decentralize the wealth and influence now concentrated in multinational industries by literally returning the power to the people.)

With what Ruffalo asserts is a scalable and stable business model, local energy sourcing might also be less vulnerable to major power outages, like those that brought the region screeching to a halt this past week. Moreover, Ruffalo projects that the Solutions Project plan could phase out fossil fuels by 2030. This would help to moderate the factors leading to what Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, referred to as “weather on steroids.” 

Following a recent presentation Ruffalo gave at the Nantucket Project, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, told him that the Solutions Project “makes sense to me.”

Despite these options, the Bloomberg BusinessWeek article cautioned that, “In truth, what’s lacking in America’s approach to climate change is not the resources to act but the political will to do so.”

Mark Ruffalo is convinced that that is changing.

“People are ready. They see what happened. They understand that climate change is a reality,” says Ruffalo. “It’s not responsible not to face this. We’re on the threshold of the renewable energy revolution.”

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