After stepping lightly around potential global warming-related weather impacts during much of his re-election campaign, President Obama signed an emergency order yesterday mobilizing federal resources and aid to deal with the impacts of a rare storm that could punish New York City and surrounding areas with devastating high winds and flooding.
"This is a serious and big storm," Obama said yesterday after meeting with emergency, military and energy officials.
"So my main message to everybody involved is that we have to take this seriously."
Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy is reshuffling the candidates' schedules, as neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney wants to risk complicating emergency preparations in Virginia and other storm-prone areas.
The rare fall hurricane poses a challenge to last-minute campaigning and early voting efforts and is likely to disrupt electricity along the East Coast. All this comes one week after a series of presidential debates ended without mentioning rising temperatures and their impacts, like the increase of strong storms, flooding and other extreme weather events.
As Sandy began careening into the Caribbean on Friday, Obama broke what had been a frequent silence on climate change issues by talking about the "severe effect" of man-made climate change in an interview with MTV's Sway Calloway, who asked how Obama would tackle the topic if he's re-elected.
"So this is a critical issue," Obama answered. "And there is a huge contrast in this campaign between myself and Gov. Romney. I am surprised it didn't come up in one of the debates. Gov. Romney says he believes in climate change. That's different than a lot of members of his own party that deny it completely. But he's not sure that man-made causes are the reason."
Obama has mentioned climate change only occasionally in the race, when speaking on university campuses or at friendly fundraisers. His comments Friday were also directed at a younger audience that strongly supports action to reduce greenhouse gases.
Climate agenda for 2nd term emerges
For one of the first times this year, Obama pointed to a greenhouse gas-related agenda that he would push in a second term.
"The next step is to deal with buildings and really ramp up our efficiency in buildings," he said. "If we had the same energy efficiency as Japan, we would cut our energy use by about 20 percent, and that means we'd be taking a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere."
Sandy appeared to pose the proverbial "October surprise" to both presidential campaigns. Both are scrambling to prepare for the political impacts of the potentially deadly storm.
Romney, who tried to make a joke about the consequences of rising sea levels during the Republican convention, canceled events scheduled for yesterday in coastal Virginia to ease pressure on emergency personnel. He was heading to Ohio instead to join his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for three stops in the Buckeye State's western and central counties.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) applauded Romney for delaying his trip to the crucial swing state as the combination of storm surges, whipping winds and heavy rainfall promises to test emergency responders.
"We appreciate that," McDonnell said of Romney's cancellations on CNN's "State of the Union" yesterday morning.
Romney is campaigning today in the conservative Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake, Ohio, before flying to Davenport, Iowa, to appear with wrestling legend Dan Gable. Romney's also scheduled to attend an evening rally in southeastern Wisconsin.
Obama canceled his own event in Virginia, a campaign rally scheduled for today in Prince William County, and Vice President Joe Biden canceled an event last Saturday in Virginia Beach.
The president also dropped a trip scheduled for tomorrow to Colorado Springs, Colo., so he can oversee disaster responses to Sandy. Obama also decided not to attend campaign events today in Florida, a crucial state where polls show Romney with a slight edge. Obama was returning to Washington this morning.
Both candidates are treading cautiously to avoid the appearance of elevating politics over the threat of what is likely to be a tragedy for tens of thousands of people.
Commander in chief gets updates
The president's campaign team emphasized his attention to the nation's safety as Sandy lumbered toward land.
"This is an example, yet again, of the president having to put his responsibilities as commander in chief and as leader of the country first, while at the same time he pursues his responsibilities as a candidate for re-election," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Saturday as Air Force One carried Obama to a New Hampshire campaign event.
Obama is receiving daily briefings from hurricane experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Obama also issued a disaster declaration yesterday for Maryland.
With nine days remaining before the election, Sandy is landing during a critical period in which the campaigns are undertaking widespread efforts to encourage early voting. North Carolina is one of the few competitive states struck by the storm with open access to polls before Election Day. Virginia voters can cast an absentee ballot if they're unable to vote Nov. 6.
"So whether it's the storm, or whether it is people having to take their kids to soccer practice, or working double shifts, it's something we're continuing to encourage people to be a part of," Jen Psaki, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, told reporters Saturday.
Foretelling the impacts of climate change on hurricanes is challenging, but some prominent scientists, like Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe rising ocean temperatures and other factors are leading to more severe hurricanes.
Scientists confidently attribute other impacts that can exacerbate the effects of hurricanes, like rising sea levels that can accelerate storm surges, to rising temperatures.
Obama, for his part, said his goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 could be reached with existing programs, like strengthened fuel economy standards for cars, and future ones, like greater building efficiency.
But in the Friday interview with MTV, he said solving the "whole problem" will require technological breakthroughs, likely as a result of government support.
"Because countries like China and India, they're building coal-power plants and they feel that they have to prioritize getting people out of poverty ahead of climate change," Obama said. "So what we have to do is help them and help ourselves by continuing to put money into research and technology about how do we really get the new sources of power that are going to make a difference."