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After Sandy, a Climate Change Conversation? Dream On

Crises come with a predictable dynamic in this country: 1) Gunman opens fire in crowded school/theater/shopping mall 2) anguished op-ed columnists say we should talk about gun control 3) we don’t. Now, in fact, we often collapse two and three—the anguished columnists just write about how we should talk about gun control, but of course we won’t.

Or, to take a more pressing example: An extreme weather event crashes into our lives. We all look at the pictures—water flooding into the subway system, for instance, an image so eerily unnatural it really does take us aback. A bunch of people tweet about how we should probably talk about climate change, and then we don’t. Partly that’s because there are so many other interesting and urgent things to talk about: when the subways will run again, or how to control the mold in your basement. Those are important, but not, in the end, as important as actually getting our climate system under control.

One reason we make so little progress is that we keep waiting for our political leaders to lead. But in this case, “leader” should be used advisedly. Our two presidential candidates have managed to slog through a summer of campaigning that carried them through the hottest month in U.S. history (July) and across a heartland enduring an epic drought. As they talked, the Arctic melted at a speed that astonished even the most pessimistic climatologists. But it appeared they somehow hadn’t noticed—it was as if they’d acquired some special weatherproof coating.

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Mitt Romney talked briefly about climate at the RNC—it was his laugh line, when he mocked President Obama for trying to ‘slow the rise of the oceans.’ (Slightly less ha-ha today). And the president sat down at the kid’s table after all the debates, telling MTV he was “surprised” it hadn’t come up at the debates.

I wasn’t surprised. I would have been shocked if either of them had raised the issue, just as I’ll be shocked if Congress ever—ever—breaks its perfect 20-year bipartisan record of accomplishing nothing on the topic. Let’s be entirely clear about what’s going on. Just as the NRA has terrified politicians of talking sensibly about gun laws, so the fossil fuel industry has imposed an effective muzzle on discussions of carbon.

They’ve done it by buying one party, and scaring the other. That’s why Congress has essentially turned into their customer service arm, keeping environmentalists on hold for 20 years with the Beltway version of cheesy Muzak. That’s why Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts tried to do something about climate change, now mocks it. And it’s why the president endlessly touts his “all of the above” energy policy, which if you think about it is almost the exact opposite of a policy. (What if he announced an “all of the above” foreign policy?)

So maybe this time, instead of waiting for history to repeat itself fruitlessly, it’s time to go where the action is and tackle the fossil fuel industry., the global climate campaign I helped found, is launching a 20-cities-in-20-nights roadshow the night after the election in Seattle. We’re doing it no matter who wins, because we want to target the real players: each night, around the country, we’ll be engaging students from the local campuses, planting organizers in an effort to spark a divestment movement like the one that helped bring down apartheid (during the Reagan administration, with a GOP Congress).

We’ll be pointing out the basic facts: the industry already has five times more carbon in its reserves than even the most conservative government thinks would be safe to burn. And they spend hundreds of millions of dollars a day looking for more. They are, in effect, a rogue industry now, pursuing record profits with reckless abandon. They know the planet is warming (they’re busily trying to get drilling rights in the melted Arctic, after all) but they don’t care.

So we need to put some pressure on them. On campus, in churches, in the media. We need to challenge their social license, just as people did with the tobacco companies. And if we do, maybe we’ll carve out some space so that our leaders can actually, you know, lead. It’s worth a try, anyway.