President Barack Obama hugs North Point Marina owner Donna
Vanzant as he tours damage done by superstorm Sandy in
Brigantine, New Jersey, on October 31. Photo from Reuters.
It's hard to know how much impact New York Mayor Michael
Bloomberg's comments about climate change after superstorm
Sandy had on the US election.
It is easy to overestimate that sort of thing, but President
Barack Obama's victory in several states was so razor-thin
that Mr Bloomberg's last-minute intervention may have been
decisive. What is crystal clear is that Mr Obama himself did
not want to talk about it during the campaign.
Mr Bloomberg, responding to the devastation he saw in New
York City, laid it on the line. "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 have been
the result of it, the risk that it may be ... should be
enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate
The New York mayor, a former Republican, did not hesitate to
assign praise and blame: "Over the past four years, President
Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon
consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency
standards for cars and trucks. Mitt Romney, too, has a
history of tackling climate change ... He couldn't have been
more right. But since then, he has reversed course." He said
this only five days before the election, in the immediate
aftermath of a national calamity that may well have been
climate-related. So did Mr Obama pick up the ball and run
Certainly not. Apart from a one-liner about how climate
change "threatens the future of our children" in a single
speech, he remained stubbornly silent.
Rightly or wrongly, Mr Obama and his team have been convinced
for the past four years that talking about climate change is
political suicide. Nor did he actually do all that much:
higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles was his only
And Mitt Romney, of course, said not a word about climate
change: you cannot take this problem seriously and retain any
credibility in today's Republican Party. So was all the
instant speculation about how superstorm Sandy might finally
awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change just
Mr Obama faces a daunting array of problems as he begins his
second term: avoiding the "fiscal cliff", restraining Israel
from attacking Iran, tackling the huge budget deficit, and
getting US troops out of Afghanistan. But the biggest problem
facing every country is climate change, and he knows it.
Otherwise, he would never have appointed a man like John
Holdren to be his chief scientific adviser.
Dr Holdren, a former president of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, is one of the leading
proponents of action on climate change. He is also savvy
enough politically to understand why Mr Obama could not do
much about it during his first term, and he did not flounce
out in a rage when the president avoided that fight.
Mr Obama rarely start fights he cannot win, and it was clear
from the day he took office in 2009 that he could not get any
climate-related legislation through Congress. That is why his
fuel-efficiency initiative was his only first-term
accomplishment on this front: that did not require
legislation, and was done as a regulatory initiative by the
Environmental Protection Agency. To what extent has his
re-election changed this equation?
Second-term US presidents, who no longer have to worry about
re-election, often act more boldly than in their first term.
The US economy is clearly in recovery mode, and Mr Obama will
(quite justly) get the credit for that. That will give him
more leeway to act on other issues, and the environmental
disasters of the past year may finally be pushing American
public opinion towards a recognition that the threat of
climate change is real.
There is not yet any opinion-polling data on that, but it
would not be surprising. This year has seen meltdown in the
Arctic, heatwaves that killed more than 10% of the main grain
crops in the United States, big changes in the jetstream
(which may be responsible for the prolonged high-pressure
zone that steered superstorm Sandy into New York), and then
the fury of the storm itself.
It has long been argued that what is needed to penetrate the
American public's resistance to the bad news of climate
change is a major climate-related disaster that hurts people
in the United States. Even if Sandy may not have been a
direct consequence of global warming, it fills that bill. It
may get the donkey's attention at last.
There is no guarantee of that, and each year the risk grows
that the average global temperature will eventually rise by
over 2degC and topple into uncontrollable, runaway warming.
Moreover, the Republicans still control the lower house of
Congress. But hope springs eternal.
The past two weeks have seen an unexpected and promising
conjunction of events: a weather event that may shake the
American public's denial of climate change, and the
re-election of a president who gets it, and who is now
politically free to act on his convictions. As Businessweek
(a magazine owned by Mr Bloomberg) put it on last week's
cover: "It's global warming, stupid."
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London