A Tale of Two Sandys: Guns and Climate

In the final quarter of election year 2012, the northeastern United States was hit by two terrible tragedies linked to the word “Sandy.” One week before the election, tropical super-storm Hurricane Sandy killed 263 people across 7 countries, caused U.S. damage of at least $64 billion, and ravaged New York and New Jersey, providing memorable images of lower Manhattan under water. Five weeks after the election, a deranged young man with an assault weapon massacred 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The two terrible events both held global attention and the news cycle for many days. They both elicited shock, horror, sympathy, and offers of assistance around the world. And both were the latest in a series of incidents resulting from a deep underlying problem that deserved an urgent response from policy-makers and the political culture.

Its fury and staying power fueled by climate change, Hurricane Sandy was preceded by numerous recent episodes of extreme weather resulting from anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Examples include the remarkable wildfires, windstorms, tornadoes, heat waves, floods and droughts of 2011 and 2012, the hottest year on record – just a small portion of the wild climatology we’ve been seeing around the planet over many years, as predicted by climate science.

The Sandy Hook slaughter was preceded by horrific gun massacres at Columbine High School (1997), Virginia Tech University (April 2007), Northern Illinois University (February 2008), Tucson, Arizona (the Gabriel Giffords shooting in January 2011), and Aurora, Colorado (the Dark Knight movie shootings of July, 2012).

These mass shootings are only the most grisly and well-known examples of “homeland” death by gunfire in recent decades. Between mid-1968 and the present, more Americans have died inside the U.S. from gun violence than in all the nation’s wars, including the Civil War.[1]  

But this is where the parallels between Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook massacre end. Sandy Hook and what it says about gun violence in America have elicited a rapid, high-profile political response, reaching up to the presidential level and resulting in bold rhetoric and reform proposals from the White House and Congress. The media has channeled widespread public anger over the sorry state of the nation’s gun laws and the power of the nation’s proto-fascistic gun lobby (the National Rifle Association).

Sandy Hook has catalyzed a distinct political moment in which there may be a real chance for the passage of measures to increase public safety. President Barack Obama and his speechwriters have met the moment with eloquent rhetoric matching Obama’s campaign for Mount Rushmore. Whether meaningful protections will be enacted remains to be seen, but a real national debate on the nation’s gun laws and the problem of gun violence has emerged and moved to the front of U.S. politics.

 “Obama’s Biggest Failure”

Things are rather different with Hurricane Sandy and what it ought to tell us about AGW. The deadly “superstorm” has sparked no remotely comparable response on the part of the president or anyone else in power. Yes, Obama’s election night victory speech contained a brief reference to how Americans want their children to grow up in a country “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” The president’s Second Inaugural Address went further, saying that “We, the people…will respond to the threat of climate change” to protect “our children and future generations” from “the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

But so what? Big deal. The president made no statements of specific political or policy intent in relation to AGW, the leading issue of the millennium. And why should anyone be impressed by his green-sounding words in light of his deeds as president so far – deeds that stand in cold defiance of his lofty, green-sounding 2007 and 2008 campaign rhetoric? Here is a reasonable judgment on Obama’s terrible and hypocritical climate record to date in the latest issue of Rolling Stone: 

“Among all the tests President Obama faced in his first term, his biggest failure was climate change. After promising in 2008 that his presidency would be ‘the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,’ President Obama went silent on the most crucial issue of our time. He failed to talk openly with Americans about the risks of continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, failed to put political muscle behind legislation to cap carbon pollution, failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations, failed to use the power of his office to end the fake ‘debate’ about the reality of global warming and failed to prepare Americans – and the world – for life on a rapidly warming planet. It was as if the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced became a political inconvenience for the president once he became elected.” [2]

If anything, Rolling Stone understates Obama’s first-term shabbiness on climate change. The president has not merely “failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations.” He has actively undermined those negotiations, leading some participants to observe that more progress would have occurred without U.S. participation. Along the way, the president has signed off on escalated offshore oil drilling and the ecologically disastrous practice of domestic hydraulic fracturing. During his second nationally televised presidential election debate with Mitt Romney, the president tussled with his Republican opponent over who would burn more of the nation’s fossil fuels in the name of national energy independence. The two contenders managed to make no references whatsoever to global warming or the environment in a debate that spent a remarkable 12 minutes on energy policy.

Obama set the stage for this horrific record early in first administration. When asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about the climate problems presented by fossil fuels (including Canadian tar sands oil, shale oil and gas, and goal) he responded with the standard and deadly western capitalist fantasy that “this can be solved with technology.”

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