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Hurricane Sandy blows climate change back onto the presidential campaign

Climate scientists caution against any direct connection between a hybrid storm like Sandy and Earth’s warming trend. But that possibility has brought climate change back into the conversation.

Until last week, climate change was pretty much a dormant issue in the presidential campaign.

Except for environmental activists, hardly anybody was talking about it – certainly neither of the candidates in any sustained or substantial way.

Obama has been mostly climate-mum since 2009,” observed Scott Rosenberg, executive editor of Grist, the environmental news and commentary web site. “Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has walked back from his carbon-cutting Massachusetts policies and embraced the current GOP orthodoxy, which is to mock anyone – including the president – who suggests taking the issue of the planet’s warming seriously.”

(In his nomination acceptance speech in TampaFla., Romney played for laughs Obama’s 2008 line about how “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”)

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IN PICTURES: Sandy, an unrelenting storm

Then came the political gale force known as Sandy. The ocean did rise, and with it the rhetoric on climate change – not so much from Obama or Romney, but from others concerned that manmade carbon emissions had reached the point where severe climate events are occurring more frequently and with greater devastation.

“There’s been a series of extreme weather incidents,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “That’s not a political statement; that’s a factual statement … I said to the president kiddingly the other day, we have a 100-year flood every two years now.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – whose city saw much of the flooding and billions of dollars in damages that have left many thousands without power, some of them still stranded – took Sandy as a good reason to get off the political fence and endorse Obama for re-election.

“Our climate is changing,” he wrote. “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.”

Speaking of candidates Obama and Romney, he continued, “One 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.”

Critics say Romney has switched (or at least greatly changed) his position on a range of issues from health care to gun control, immigration to abortion. This week, it’s his shifting rhetoric on climate change that’s being reviewed.

As Massachusetts governor, Romney joined a regional cap- and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions.

“The benefits will be long- lasting and enormous – benefits to our health, our economy, our quality of life, our very landscape,” he wrote at the time. “These are actions we can and must take now, if we are to have ‘no regrets’ when we transfer our temporary stewardship of this Earth to the next generation.”

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“Stewardship of the earth” is not a phrase Romney uttered during the campaign. Nor is it heard much from Obama as he fights over other issues toward what he hopes will be a second term.

Still, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out in his endorsement message, Obama did take major steps to reduce carbon emissions, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and adopting tighter controls on mercury emissions, which will help to close the dirtiest coal-fired power plants.

Hurricane Sandy has given activists reason to raise climate change as the planet’s most daunting environmental challenge.

“We have entered a new era,” blogs Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Climate change has begun to make its presence known. It is heating up our oceans and pumping hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, more moisture, and stronger winds. It is swelling our seas, so that storm surges are higher and cause more flooding. FromNorfolk, Virginia to Boston, sea levels are rising four times as fast as the global average. Hurricane Sandy cut right along those swollen seas.”

Most climate scientists caution against asserting any direct connection between a single hybrid storm like Sandy and Earth’s generally agreed upon warming trend tied to industrial and motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

But in the world of politics, even the possibility of such a connection has brought climate change back into the conversation.