Can we (finally) begin a serious dialogue about climate change?

It’s still dark and cold when I wake up.

Instinctively, I listen for the sound of the generator. Hearing nothing, I begin to panic, until I remember that we’ve been turning it off at night to stretch our supply of bottled gas.

This is commentary by Michael Catania is a former deputy commissioner of the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection. It originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

It’s still dark and cold when I wake up.

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Instinctively, I listen for the sound of the generator. Hearing nothing, I begin to panic, until I remember that we’ve been turning it off at night to stretch our supply of bottled gas.

I dress quickly, heading outside to fire up our personal power supply, the marvelous machine that affords us some level of comfort — even after a week without electricity — that so many others do not have.

Our town looks like the site of a major battle. Twisted tress and downed wires still block streets, dark buildings, and closed shops; the silence broken only by the whine of the occasional generator. Soon that sound will be joined by a chorus of chainsaws, as homeowners and utility crews continue the seemingly endless task of clearing rubble.

Later, we’ll see a long lines of cars waiting at the local service station, in response to rumors that it may receive a delivery and actually be open today.

It is amazing how dealing with disaster quickly reduces life to the basics: food and water, shelter and warmth, the safety of family and friends. A few days into the crisis, without TV, radio, or the Internet, and it already feels somewhat as if we’re living in the middle ages or some third-world country.

Yet we’re keenly aware that we are among the lucky ones. We are all safe and sound. We have not lost our worldly possessions. Our house has not been crushed by a falling tree, or swept off its foundation by surging waters. At worst, we are inconvenienced.

But while I wonder how long it will be before things get back to normal, I can’t help but think about how this all happened. When did life morph into a post-apocalyptic TV show slotted into the fall lineup? And that thought calls up a familiar question: Is this enough to force us into being willing to discuss how to be better prepared to deal with the forces of nature and our changing climate.

It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. The past few years have brought hurricanes, heat waves, historic rainfall, severe droughts, several 100-year floods — even an October snowstorm. Virtually every credible scientist on the planet has been warning us to change our behavior in order to adapt to a changing climate.

Given the early warnings and scientific consensus, we should be in the thick of special legislative sessions, teach-ins, and the moral equivalent of war against climate change. Yet the subject has all but disappeared from the national and state discourse.

I have to admit that I find it both ironic and irritating that the same folks who’ve been blathering about shrinking the government so the private sector can provide for us are among the first to complain that the government isn’t moving quickly enough now that disaster has struck. I guess it would never occur to them that the government is doing less with less, which I thought was their whole point.

Yet perhaps some good can come out of all of this needless loss and suffering. Perhaps we can finally have a serious dialogue about adapting to climate change.

How do we initiate that discussion? To begin with, it is high time for the majority of us — not to mention our elected officials — to stop allowing a paranoid minority set the agenda and thwart our ability to address the real problems.

We have allowed any mention of climate change to become politically incorrect because a handful of ill-advised people are convinced that it’s a hoax. They also believe that local “green teams” working under the auspices of Sustainable Jersey are really part of a secret plot to help the United Nations seize control of our communities as part of Agenda 21.

Former Gov. Tom Kean recently said that it is time “to make our leaders lead on climate change.” I second that motion, while pointing out that it also applies to each of us.

If the past week has taught us anything, it is that we live — precariously — at the whim of Mother Nature. We are just a storm or two away from seeing civilization revert to pre-industrial conditions for increasing periods of time.

Regardless of why this is happening and why we have not acted earlier, it is time to put aside our political differences and begin together to deal with one of the most significant threats our society will ever face.

It is high time for some serious public discourse on how we can make our communities more resilient and less vulnerable to climate change. We also need to have an open dialogue about how we can respect and restore natural systems, as well as use some good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity to begin to mitigate the effects of climate change.

By having a serious discussion, we can begin to identify and build consensus for a wide variety of actions to help us adapt to a changing world in order to gradually move our communities out of harm’s way.

I suspect that there will be no panacea. Rather a myriad of strategies will hold the key to the significant progress that we must seek.

There is an old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I think it is just as true that a few moments of serious dialogue can be worth years of blathering.

Please pass this thought along. Let’s begin our conversation.

Michael Catania is a former deputy commissioner of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection who served in that position under two governors and three commissioners in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He is also the author of many of New Jersey’s landmark environmental laws and is currently the president of Conservation Resources, a nonprofit conservation intermediary organization. The opinions expressed in this commentary are entirely his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual or any organization.

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