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Opinion: Can We (Finally) Begin a Serious Dialogue About Climate Change?

Musings about life and public policy in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

By Michael Catania

[Michael Catania is a former deputy commissioner of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection who served in that position under two governors and three commissioners in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He is also the author of many of New Jersey’s landmark environmental laws and is currently the president of Conservation Resources, a nonprofit conservation intermediary organization. The opinions expressed in this commentary are entirely his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual or any organization.]

It's still dark and cold when I wake up.

Instinctively, I listen for the sound of the generator. Hearing nothing, I begin to panic, until I remember that we've been turning it off at night to stretch our supply of bottled gas.

I dress quickly, heading outside to fire up our personal power supply, the marvelous machine that affords us some level of comfort -- even after a week without electricity -- that so many others do not have.

Our town looks like the site of a major battle. Twisted tress and downed wires still block streets, dark buildings, and closed shops; the silence broken only by the whine of the occasional generator. Soon that sound will be joined by a chorus of chainsaws, as homeowners and utility crews continue the seemingly endless task of clearing rubble.

Later, we’ll see a long lines of cars waiting at the local service station, in response to rumors that it may receive a delivery and actually be open today.

It is amazing how dealing with disaster quickly reduces life to the basics: food and water, shelter and warmth, the safety of family and friends. A few days into the crisis, without TV, radio, or the Internet, and it already feels somewhat as if we're living in the middle ages or some third-world country.

Yet we're keenly aware that we are among the lucky ones. We are all safe and sound. We have not lost our worldly possessions. Our house has not been crushed by a falling tree, or swept off its foundation by surging waters. At worst, we are inconvenienced.

But while I wonder how long it will be before things get back to normal, I can’t help but think about how this all happened. When did life morph into a post-apocalyptic TV show slotted into the fall lineup? And that thought calls up a familiar question: Is this enough to force us into being willing to discuss how to be better prepared to deal with the forces of nature and our changing climate. 

It's not like we didn't see this coming. The past few years have brought hurricanes, heat waves, historic rainfall, severe droughts, several 100-year floods -- even an October snowstorm. Virtually every credible scientist on the planet has been warning us to change our behavior in order to adapt to a changing climate.

Given the early warnings and scientific consensus, we should be in the thick of special legislative sessions, teach-ins, and the moral equivalent of war against climate change. Yet the subject has all but disappeared from the national and state discourse.

I have to admit that I find it both ironic and irritating that the same folks who've been blathering about shrinking the government so the private sector can provide for us are among the first to complain that the government isn't moving quickly enough now that disaster has struck. I guess it would never occur to them that the government is doing less with less, which I thought was their whole point.

Yet perhaps some good can come out of all of this needless loss and suffering. Perhaps we can finally have a serious dialogue about adapting to climate change.

How do we initiate that discussion? To begin with, it is high time for the majority of us -- not to mention our elected officials -- to stop allowing a paranoid minority set the agenda and thwart our ability to address the real problems.

We have allowed any mention of climate change to become politically incorrect because a handful of ill-advised people are convinced that it's a hoax. They also believe that local “green teams” working under the auspices of Sustainable Jersey are really part of a secret plot to help the United Nations seize control of our communities as part of Agenda 21. 
Former Gov. Tom Kean recently said that it is time “to make our leaders lead on climate change.” I second that motion, while pointing out that it also applies to each of us.

If the past week has taught us anything, it is that we live -- precariously -- at the whim of Mother Nature,. We are just a storm or two away from seeing civilization revert to pre-industrial conditions for increasing periods of time.

Regardless of why this is happening and why we have not acted earlier, it is time to put aside our political differences and begin together to deal with one of the most significant threats our society will ever face.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

Joe R November 10, 2012 at 05:46 PM
It's very hard to have a serious dialogue about climate change when you have the right wing, most of the GOP, Fox UnNews and hate wing radio dedicated to mocking and denying climate change. Germany has set itself the goal of not only weaning itself off of fossil fuels but also of phasing out nuclear power. They set their goals in 2000 and have recommitted to phasing out nuclear power after the horrific nuclear disaster in Japan. We are not even close to setting up such goals in the US. Here it's drill baby drill and whoopee, let's build more nuclear plants, just what we don't need.
raymond Weis November 10, 2012 at 07:31 PM
I don't think the argument is are we having climate change. I think the dispute is the cause of climate change. I for one am not ready to give up on heat in the winter and lights all year round nor the convienence of being able to drive where ever I want to go. If climate change is just a normal cycle then there is nothing we can do about. If it is caused by our energy consumpsion we'll have to develope alternatives that really use less fossil fuels than we use now. Not only are electric cars so much more expensive to buy but I read an article about them that stated it produced more carbon by products into the atmosphere to produce the batteries and provide the electric to charge the batteries than it would to drive a gasoline powered car and you still could'nt make a round trip to Philadelphia airport. Perhaps if they ever manage to produce fusion energy we would be heading in the right direction but right now nobody has the answer we need.
thomas coyne November 10, 2012 at 09:15 PM
The earth is supposedly a few billion years old, we have been in existence for a short amount of this time. Our experts say that we are destroying our environment without knowing what the cyclical changes over time have been, other than their opinion based upon what they think, and we all know what opinions are. I agree that we are not doing our environment any favors with our lifestyle, but crying that the sky is falling anytime something out of the ordinary happens, does not help the problem. If our researchers could actually do something, other than hurry to get their name in print, and give us real facts, perhaps we would listen.
Joe R November 10, 2012 at 09:31 PM
This isn't about opinion, it's about scientific research and scientific data and the results of the studies of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists in the world, not just Brooklyn. There was no such consensus back in the 1970s for global cooling, not even close. As for electric cars or hybrid cars, they are pumping much less pollution into the atmosphere, they are a step in the right direction and as the technology improves they will do even better. I don't think that the manufacture phase of hybrids or electric cars is any more harmful to the environment than the manufacture of gasoline powered cars. But we should (and the car companies are doing this) simultaneously work to make gasoline powered cars more efficient and thus less polluting.
Caroline Hawkins November 12, 2012 at 12:49 AM
How can you really believe that we can change a act of GOD. Man doesn't rule the earth. God does, and since man has said there is no place for God here and we have a Muslim leader what can you look forward to?

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