Sandy a galvanizing moment for climate change?

One Sunday afternoon in 1969 the filthy, oil-coated Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and quickly became a potent symbol of industrial pollution, helping galvanize public opinion and set the stage for passage of national environmental laws the following decade.

The combination of Hurricane Sandy and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement that he was endorsing President Obama largely because of Obama's actions on global warming could do the same thing for climate change, say scientists and political observers.

"This may be that sort of Cuyahoga River moment for climate change," said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and Penn State University professor. "It has galvanized attention to this issue and the role that climate change may be playing with regard to the intensification of extreme weather."

Coming on the heels of this summer's crop-withering drought in the Midwest and destructive wildfires in the West, Sandy provided a glimpse of what scientists say the nation can expect with global warming. Even before surging floodwaters choked Manhattan subway tunnels and left parts of the Jersey Shore in shambles, public acceptance of climate change was growing.

More than half of Americans now believe that climate change caused by human activity is occurring, and 58% say they are "somewhat" or "very worried" about it, according to a September poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

"After this crazy weather we've been having the last several years — Irene last year, Sandy this year, the drought, the fires, floods — it's getting more and more difficult for people to deny what everybody sees with their own eyes," said New York climate scientist Scott Mandia, coauthor of a book on the rising sea level. "I think people are starting to connect the dots."

Bloomberg's Thursday endorsement of Obama thrust to the political forefront a topic that has been largely ignored this election season, eclipsed by concerns about jobs and the economy.

"Our climate is changing," Bloomberg wrote in his endorsementposted online. "And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week's devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

Coming from a wealthy businessman and a political independent, Bloomberg's focus on climate change could influence the thinking of Americans on the fence about global warming, said Joshua Freed, head of the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank.

"He's a capitalist, a different type of person talking about climate change than an environmentalist or yet another elected official," Freed said.

Sandy's pummeling of the country's biggest metropolitan region made the effects of global warming real in a way that the melting of distant polar ice caps or the acidification of the world's oceans can't.

"It is of course true that you can't say that climate change created Sandy," said Mann, whose recent book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines" chronicles the war over climate science.



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