Truth or Consequences

Misleading rhetoric has real impacts on real people.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” With these words, Mitt Romney accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to become president.

While it is unseemly to bicker about politics while a ferocious storm is still changing people’s lives, it is important to ask the right questions on the eve of casting our votes.

Hurricane Sandy—the “Frankenstorm”—delivered a tragic seawater surge at high tide during a full moon. Conditions could hardly have been worse for the millions people who live on and near America’s most densely populated coastline.

But consider what New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and coastal populations around the world are facing in the coming decades, as the average sea level rises.

The next “Frankenstorm” might or might not strike anytime soon, nor will it need to. When average sea level is a few feet higher than today, storms won’t have to arrive at high tide in order to devastate unprotected coastal cities.

In fact, we don’t even need to know whether the number of storms or their intensity are going to increase in order to grasp this crucial fact: sea level is already rising—more than 8” since the Industrial Revolution began and it is accelerating.

In the future, storm surges will arise from higher and higher starting points.

This means that smaller storms will become more dangerous and costly, and the frequency with which lives and property might be lost will increase. Some officials are already discussing how to prepare for this tough new world, but the national conversation has been utterly missing.

The real lie in Governor Romney’s dismissive—and now brutal-sounding—rhetorical jab at President Obama was his failure to connect well-established scientific data with its consequences for the people who live and work in harm’s way.

Americans have been watching a tragedy befall millions of our fellow citizens in one of the world’s great population centers. We are watching real people suffer real consequences.

To mock global warming and sea level rise in a political sales pitch dismisses the hardship that millions of people are feeling right now, and the hardships that will befall millions more in the next few decades.

Likewise, to excuse such a cynical remark because its consequences have suddenly become so starkly clear mocks the people’s capacity to make reasonable decisions about their own welfare, and masks a concerted effort to mislead them.

Should Americans embrace leaders to champion ignorance and our basest emotions? Or, should they demand that our national leaders connect the dots between real data and its real consequences, and behave accordingly?

I am not blaming Hurricane Sandy on climate change. The endless handwringing about whether any one storm can be linked to systemic changes in the climate system has become a sideshow.

Sandy shows us what commonplace storms will be able to do in the future.

There is a lot of evidence that people make reasonable choices when given the chance. Giving them that chance means telling the truth, not spinning yarns that you hope you can convince people to believe.

Those who are encouraging Americans to awaken from what I’ve called the “big sleep” often express deep concern for the lives of their families and friends. They could be using Governor Romney’s very words: “My promise is to care about you and your family.”

What should those words mean now?

Billions of dollars were saved last week because officials saw Hurricane Sandy coming and prepared in advance. We can thank the National Weather Service and satellite systems at NOAA for that. What would slashing these investments mean to us?

It’s time to connect the dots. Responding to the climate threat isn’t about “healing the planet.” It’s about protecting the lives of people who, in this changing world, are finding themselves in harm’s way.

Dismissing concerns about sea level rise isn’t even honest. Mr. Romney and his advisors know what the data says. The anti-government, anti-science, pro-free-markets campaign is designed to mislead the public about life-and-death risks.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has shown its hand on this issue. Can voters see the cards they’re being dealt? Do they want to play this hand?
We will learn a bit more about ourselves on Election Day.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of CasualCapture via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.