Even more striking than the price tag, however, is the utter helplessness of government officials in getting the New York-New Jersey area back on its feet. As my brother and I, in New Jersey looking after our elderly parents, drove down venerable Highway 1 – perhaps the nation's first real "highway," we could not help but be struck by telephone poles leaning inward toward the highway, threatening to fall down on traffic. Also striking is the sight of cars crawling along Highway 1, gingerly navigating their way through intersections with non-functioning traffic lights. No looting was apparent in broad daylight, but numerous businesses still without power had boarded up their storefronts and secured them with chain-link fences.
I was also in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. Then and there, too, there was a palpable sense of tragedy that had touched everyone. As a professor at George Washington University, I was told to stop my classes immediately and go home, and send all my students home. Outside, from across the hall from my office, I could see a wisp of smoke rising up from the Pentagon, a symbol of invulnerability if there ever was one. Yes, that was a dark time, too, but there was something different about being in Central New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Whereas in the aftermath of September 11 troops were out in full force and maintaining order, they were not present in Central New Jersey. We remember then-mayor Rudy Giuliani marching purposefully through the streets of lower Manhattan, ordering first responders around, and generally giving off the aura of defiance in the face of disaster. This time, this place, nothing doing. Governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama came, did their best, and left, but this time around there was no reassuring presence. This is what is so frightening about climate change, perhaps even more so than terrorism: that nature, unlike Al Qaeda, is capable of overwhelming governmental ability to restore order.
What does this have to do with a carbon tax and conservatives? A carbon tax will give the Republicans some record on climate change. Right now, Republicans are mostly out-and-out deniers and obstructionists. I have strenuously avoided blaming Republicans for American intransigence on climate change, because I have never seen the point. I still don't think it is productive, but given the consequences of Hurricane Sandy, others will. The front page of Bloomberg News contained a photo of a flooded New York City street, and the enormous headline, "It's Global Warming, Stupid." This is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the seventh-richest person in America, a Republican, and no freakish tree-hugger. He has endorsed President Obama because he believes that he will do something about climate change, whereas Mitt Romney will still feel beholden to his Tea Party faction.
Not that Bloomberg attributes Hurricane Sandy to climate change, nor could anyone responsibly do so. Really, the best that the best hurricane scientists can say at this point is that climate change will not produce more hurricanes, but it will produce more strong hurricanes. So it is wrong and even irresponsible to attribute Sandy to climate change. But that won't stop people like Bill McKibben, the not-so-smart environmental activist who said after Hurricane Irene that "[Irene]'s got a middle name, and it is global warming." I've always detested McKibben's alarmism, because it detracts from the credible messages that the rest of us are sending. But if we get another Hurricane Sandy next year – as a climate changed-world might give us – what will people say? As mistaken as it is, people are going to start pointing fingers. You don't have to be a political genius or even a Bill McKibben to know who they're going to point their fingers at.