In light of horrific wildfires, a historic drought and now the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the political understatement of the year has to be President Obama's recent comment to MTV. Asked about climate change's absence from all presidential debates for the first time in a generation, he said, "I am surprised it didn't come up."
Instead of "surprised" he should have said "appalled" -- because that's what he and most Americans should be. As Scientific American reports, while no one weather event can be blamed on climate change, science now definitively "link(s) climate change directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events."
Of course, the reason the issue hasn't "come up" in a presidential campaign roiled by climate-related disasters is because many voters refuse to acknowledge that human-intensified climate change is real. Indeed, you can show people the data; you can show them photos of coastal devastation; you can even show them the ultraconservative insurance industry admitting "the footprints of climate change are around us" -- and nonetheless, too many will still insist it is all just a liberal fantasy manufactured by Al Gore. That's because, in a country where self-image is defined by party allegiance, the GOP's fealty to fossil fuel companies and its corresponding rejection of climate science means many Republicans categorically ignore environmental truths.
This is why, just days before the national election, New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie is a potentially more important political figure than anyone running for the White House. Thanks to his fame, his credibility among conservatives and his ubiquitous media presence during the cataclysm, he has the rare chance to convince Republicans to discard their denialism and finally face reality.
If it seems silly to hope for any GOP rising star to even admit the seriousness of climate change, recall that in 2011 the governor declared that "we know enough to know that we are at least part of the problem," that "climate change is real" and that "human activity plays a role in these changes."
Skeptics will point out that some of those statements were made as Christie was vetoing legislation to continue his state's participation in a key greenhouse gas reduction program. And they will also note, as the New York Observer did, that "Christie has so far only given [the climate issue] lip service without acting on his convictions" (Christie famously screaming at people to "get the hell off the beach!" does not count as acting on convictions).
These are fair criticisms. But with Christie's rhetoric so different from his party's, and with his own state so jeopardized by the climate crisis, there remains reason to hope that he will step up and be a transformative figure -- especially considering his personal connection to the consequences of inaction. This is a man, after all, who appeared genuinely distraught over how this week's climate-intensified hurricane laid waste to his heritage.
"The Jersey Shore of my youth is gone," he lamented to his Twitter followers. "The rides I took my kids on this summer are in the Atlantic Ocean."
Regrettably, he's right, but unlike many Americans, he is in a position to prevent even more of that heritage from being washed away.
No, he doesn't have to channel Obama and feign shock that climate change hasn't "come up." No, he doesn't have to accept the pathetic post-9/11 definition of leadership as a politician simply praising fellow politicians and avoiding a televised nervous breakdown during a disaster. Instead, he can opt to be a real leader -- one who marshals the power of the national spotlight to demand that his party get serious about the climate crisis. It's his choice. Here's hoping he makes the right one before it is too late.