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Thies: Democrats' climate change message is too tepid

"If we don't take action now to better address the causes of climate change, when will we?" writes Evan Thies. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

It turned out that the biggest game changer at the end of the 2012 presidential election wasn't an economic report or a security threat. It was the superstorm that wreaked devastation and chaos on millions, and unexpectedly resurrected debate over an issue that had been missing in action in the campaign and was considered nearly dead: climate change.

Pre-Sandy, climate change was a nonstarter for both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have largely rejected the concept of human-created climate shifts, and Democrats have shied away from the issue because they believed it was ballot-box kryptonite.

They weren't wrong to fear voters' response. A Rasmussen poll in 2009 and a Gallup poll in 2010 both showed that around half of Americans thought the dangers of global warming were exaggerated. In battleground states such as Ohio, the perceived economic impact of dealing with climate change made the subject even thornier.

But Sandy changed all that. A Rasmussen poll taken just after the storm showed that 68 percent thought climate change is a somewhat serious or very serious problem. Now -- especially in those hard-hit Eastern states -- citizens are asking where a storm of such magnitude came from, and voters want to know what their elected officials are doing to protect against the next one.

In response, the president said at a White House news conference on Wednesday that he hopes to have a national "conversation" on climate change, and will discuss options for reducing carbon emission with scientists. But he offered no specific legislation or ideas.

Other politicians, however, are lining up to present plans of attack. Locally, just last week, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled proposals to protect against the dangers of climate change.

That was fast. As well it should have been. But there is something curious about their message: It is not nearly as much about preventing climate change as it is about mitigating the destruction it causes.

This new approach was perhaps best exemplified in an op-ed in the New York Daily News by the governor (and potential 2016 presidential candidate) last Thursday. He spent one sentence on preventing man-made climate change and nine paragraphs on infrastructure improvements and other practical measures to better prepare for wild weather.

But the most interesting line coming from Cuomo lately is what is now emerging as Democrats' new message on climate change -- the argument that "extreme weather is the new normal" and that we have to prepare for it, whether or not we agree on why it's happening. A speech by Speaker Quinn last week to the Association for a Better New York had a similar postmodern tone.

It also seems our federal officials are more interested in infrastructure projects than environmental legislation at the moment, judging by the dearth of renewed efforts from our senators after the storm to improve energy consumption, air quality or emissions standards.

Of course, building sea gates and protective barriers would also bring needed jobs to our region, and a fairer share of federal funds. And no one would argue against doing something soon to better protect our area from storm damage. So there are both practical economic and safety considerations to be made. It is also only fair to acknowledge that these elected officials all have worked on limiting the causes of climate change in the past.

Yet these infrastructure proposals are couched as plans for dealing with climate change, when they are actually just plans for defense against its continuing effects.

That should concern New Yorkers as much as the threat of another monster storm. Because if we don't take action now to better address the causes of climate change, when will we?

Evan Thies is the president of Brooklyn Strategies, a public affairs and strategic planning firm that offers political advice.