The best television coverage of President Obama’s climate speech Tuesday wasn’t on Fox, CNN, or even MSNBC. It was on the Weather Channel, the only network to carry the address live and to treat it as the major development that it was. Before Obama spoke, the network carried a special, “The Science Behind Climate Change.” After the speech, the network ran more analysis, including a discussion of ways to reduce carbon emissions.
Apparently this is typical. I’m not a Weather Channel aficionado, but my 13-year-old son loves it. He tells me they’ve been talking about climate change for some time. And while that could be a sign the network’s management has a secret liberal bias, it could also be a sign that shows about disasters get strong ratings. When bad things happen—or, in this case, when bad things might happen in the future—people care about it. And that tells us something important about what’s really at stake in this fight.
As soon as the White House began leaking stories about Obama’s plans to refocus on climate change, Republicans and their allies pounced. And although the usual yahoos had the usual loopy things to say, for the most part critics used the occasion to suggest that climate change was a distraction from more important issues—and that Obama, by focusing on the environment, had lost touch with the American people. “I think this is absolutely crazy,” House Speaker John Boehner said. "Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when American people are asking, 'Where are the jobs.' " Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggested Obama’s concern was evidence of “Acela Corridor ideology … places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers”—although, to be fair, it wasn’t clear whether Douthat agreed with that perception or was merely describing it.
Conservatives make these arguments because, historically, they have worked. And they may still work today. Plenty of Americans are prepared to believe that environmentalism necessarily pits the good of the planet against the good of its human inhabitants. But, as a substantive matter, our interests are not really in such conflict. The effects of climate change include higher rates of diseases like asthma (because the air is harder to breathe) and malaria (because mosquitoes have more places, and more time, to breed). As the planet warms, weather patterns change, and most scientists believe that will lead to more frequent and more severe storms. Some of the most devastating effects could come from rising sea levels, enough to threaten coastal cities around the world—home to many millions of people and many billions of dollars worth of wealth. Drought, famine, floods—spotted owls aren’t the only ones who would feel the effects.
If you have followed this issue at all, you know this already. If not, or if you want a refresher, you should read “Goodbye, Miami,” a new Rolling Stone article in which journalist Jeff Goodell predicts rising sea levels will turn South Florida into an “American Atlantis” within a few decades. The story hit home for me, literally, because I grew up in South Florida and most of my family still lives there. My parents live on what happens to be the region’s only natural hill. It’s a build-up of coral that makes the neighborhood relatively flood proof, even though it’s less than two miles from the Atlantic Ocean. (The name of the neighborhood is “Coral Ridge.”) But if the sea levels rise as Goodell’s article predicts, it won’t matter that our old house is high and dry. Nothing else will be. Parts of South Florida already flood in heavy rains, which happen pretty much every day in the summer. The encroachment of sea water poses an ever greater threat to fresh water supplies and other basic infrastructure.
The history of South Florida is a history of developers fighting with nature—a story Michael Grunwald tells famously, and eloquently, in his book The Swamp. But even the Dutch, who have spent several centuries learning how to protect their low-lying homeland, don't know what to do about Miami. (According to Goodell, South Florida’s subterranean limestone makes keeping out the salt water particularly difficult.) But even if engineers can find a solution, it would almost certainly be ridiculously expensive. The flood protection plan New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed for his city was $20 billion. South Florida has more coastline, sits closer to the ocean, and sees many more tropical storms.
Goodell’s prediction could be too dire and, for the sake of everybody living there, I certainly hope that it is. But these days the oceans seem to be rising faster than expected, not slower. And even conservative estimates suggest rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities all over the U.S. and around the globe—with enormous political, social, and, yes, economic repercussions. The best-case scenario, in which we figure out how to live with the effects of only modest climate change, would still entail a serious financial commitment. Obama's proposal won't, on its own, change that. The initiatives he announced, particularly the proposed limits on emissions from existing power plants, represent just one step towards controlling climate change. But with every step, the planet's warming slows down a little, the likelihood of more progress increases, and we are better off. The folks at the Weather Channel obviously get this. How long before everybody else?
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor of the New Republic. Follow Jonathan on twitter @CitizenCohn.