Inconvenient Political Truths Could Loom with Climate Change

Inconvenient Political Truths Could Loom with Climate Change

Inconvenient Political Truths Could Loom with Climate Change
January 28, 2014

I want to make a contrarian case for climate change some day becoming the fundamental factor realigning American politics.

In the wake of the debacle surrounding the 2011 debt limit crisis, The New York Times’ David Brooks reminded us of Samuel Lubell’s observation that American politics thrives when one party acts as a sun and the other as a moon. Brooks argued that we have two moons and no sun, as both parties are acting like minority (moon) parties. Brooks concluded that a devastating fiscal crisis would be likely to bring a political flood realigning our politics. I believe the flood precipitating this realignment could well be a real flood.

I can hear the naysayers now. Polling data shows climate change is not a front-burner issue for voters. Climate change is currently dormant on the cutting edge of our politics. Nevertheless, some inconvenient truths may be headed our way.

Our nation has been witnessing catastrophic and contradictory climate based disruptions. In the Southwest we have had droughts and massive tornadoes, while in the far West alternating bouts of drought and horrendous forest fires have been followed by severe flooding. The Northeast has been hammered by superstorms emanating from tropical storms.

Here in New York, within the span of 14 months upstate’s Hudson Valley was ravaged by Irene (which also clobbered Vermont) and Superstorm Sandy devastated the shores of New York City and Long Island (along with New Jersey and Connecticut).

In the Midwest, Chicago is wisely planning for what the scientists tell them is coming: Within several decades Chicago is likely to have the climate of a southern city. That could wreak havoc through rising water levels to the communities along Lake Michigan.

For the most part the political dots have not yet been connected on a national level or in our state, but at some point events could lock in not just perceptions but conclusions. Voters will ask questions not unlike those asked after Pearl Harbor, which devastated the political standing of isolationists. This time voters will ask, “Where were you on climate change?” Woe to those elected officials with no good answer.

If events lead the American people to conclude climate change is a clear and present danger to their quality of life, then the Republicans are in a deep hole. Congressional Republicans have functionally denied climate change is a problem.

National Democrats are not blameless either, for they have been afraid to engage on climate change in the absence of the old bipartisan consensus on environmental issues. But Democrats could rebound, while the Republican’s congressional wing has left the Grand Old Party to stand in the political cold, if global warming catches political fire.

If climate change strikes politically, it will hit with devastating political force, precisely because of those communities that will be hit hardest: the American suburbs, where fully half the nation’s electorate resides.

New York and New Jersey are talismans for this potential political tsunami. Irene devastated the smaller suburbs of the upper Hudson Valley, while Sandy devastated Long Island. If suburban voters, so sensitive to market factors, shift away from the Republicans nationally over climate change, the Democrats would become a true sun party again. Just imagine the political implications of drastically altering the home values in America’s wealthiest suburban markets.

The GOP has a choice to make. There was a reason that Republicans like Nixon, Rockefeller and Pataki put so much effort into building a green agenda. Smart politics would reconfigure a bipartisan consensus on behalf of a purposeful climate change agenda. Regrettably, that accord is unlikely today.

We don’t know when climate change will reconfigure the contour of our nation’s political riverbed. In anticipation, the Democrats would be wise to find their courage on climate change, while the Republicans should recover their brains in what could become a political land of Oz should real floods realign our nation’s politics.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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Bruce N. Gyory