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Romney’s Global Warming Joke Should Haunt Him

It’s baffling that Democrats haven’t gone after the GOP candidate for making light of rising oceans, even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction.

When Governor Romney gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he quipped that President Obama wants to slow the rise of the oceans; by contrast, he wanted to help American families. It would be interesting to see if Romney would care to repeat this line today.

Perhaps he wants to tell the people of New York and New Jersey who have seen the oceans destroy their homes – and in some cases, their lives – how silly President Obama is for taking steps to counter global warming. These people will surely get a good chuckle from the governor’s sense of humor as they wait to have to electricity restored or their homes rebuilt.

It is remarkable that the Democrats have not been harsher in holding Romney in contempt for his comments in these final days leading up to the election. Imagine the shoe were on the other foot.

Imagine a world where we had not seen the September 11th attacks and a Democratic challenger to President Bush’s re-election in 2004 had mocked the money that Bush had spent on defenses against terrorism. If the country had then been hit by a terrorist attack in the week before the election, would the Republicans be shy about going after their challenger’s bad sense of humor?

Beating up Governor Romney is not just a question of cheap politics. Global warming is serious business. Over 100 people died last week in New York and New Jersey because of Sandy. People have been and will be dying all around the world because of weather events related to global warming.

In addition to the rising waters and storms that have hit much of the world with greater frequency and intensity in recent years due to global warming, we are also seeing the southward spread of the desert in sub-Saharan Africa. And we are seeing a shift in habitats for many plants and animals, which raise the raises the prospect not only for the disruption of agriculture but also for the spread of diseases for which our bodies may be ill-prepared.

Of course, there is not a direct chain of causation from global warming to Hurricane Sandy or any specific weather event. The relationship is probabilistic; because of global warming, we can expect to see more hurricanes and more severe hurricanes. The same is the case with other destructive shifts in weather.

Probability is a concept that we are used to dealing with. Driving drunk doesn’t necessarily cause someone to have an accident; it just hugely increases the probability of having an accident, which is why we arrest people for it. Even playing Russian roulette doesn’t mean that you are going to die; it just hugely increases the probability of dying.

At this point, there is not any ambiguity about the science: human emissions of greenhouse gases

(GHG) are causing the planet to get hotter. The only debate is about how much hotter, and how quickly, as well as the effectiveness of measures to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

The carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions that we have spewed into the atmosphere already guarantee that we will see many more storms like Sandy, at least in part as a result of human action. The debate over reducing emissions is one over limiting the number of these storms and the damage they cause.

It is also important to remember that while Sandy did enormous damage to New York, New Jersey and other areas on the East Coast, most areas of the world are far less prepared to deal with a catastrophic storm. If a Sandy-sized storm hits Bangladesh or the Philippines, or Haiti, which it actually did hit, the disruption to the economy and the loss of life will be much more serious.

Anyone who thinks all this is funny should be disqualified from being taken seriously, not only as presidential candidate, but from holding any responsible position in public life. We can debate the best path for dealing with global warming, and there will certainly be grounds for dispute over the merits of any specific policy or project, but serious people do not ignore the threat posed by human-caused global warming.

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