Who’s the bigger threat: Mother nature or Al Qaeda?

If you’re on the East Coast of the United States and hunkering down while Hurricane Sandy hits, you might devote some time to studying the heated (pun intended) exchanges that President Obama and Governor Romney had on the issue of climate change during the presidential debates. It won’t take you long, because the two candidates ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

If you're on the East Coast of the United States and hunkering down while Hurricane Sandy hits, you might devote some time to studying the heated (pun intended) exchanges that President Obama and Governor Romney had on the issue of climate change during the presidential debates. It won't take you long, because the two candidates ignored the issue completely.

It is of course possible that Sandy has nothing to do with climate change. Hurricanes have been hitting the East Coast for centuries, so this one is really nothing new, right? Except that one implication of rising global temperatures is that tropical storms will be larger and more destructive, and a storm the size of Sandy is more than a little unusual (indeed, it is reported to be the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded). Its arrival is thus entirely consistent with the warnings that atmospheric scientists have been giving for some time.

A storm like this inevitably brings loss of life and vast destruction. My guess is that the damage from this storm will far exceed all the death and destruction that terrorists have caused in this country since 9/11. Yet we remain obsessed with the threat of Al Qaeda & Co. and we use it to justify all sorts of dubious national security policies, while taking natural disasters that are probably more serious in stride. Consider that the 2013 budget request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is $13 billion, but the Department of Homeland Security will get roughly $50 billion (or more than three times the FEMA total).

If you’re on the East Coast of the United States and hunkering down while Hurricane Sandy hits, you might devote some time to studying the heated (pun intended) exchanges that President Obama and Governor Romney had on the issue of climate change during the presidential debates. It won’t take you long, because the two candidates ignored the issue completely.

It is of course possible that Sandy has nothing to do with climate change. Hurricanes have been hitting the East Coast for centuries, so this one is really nothing new, right? Except that one implication of rising global temperatures is that tropical storms will be larger and more destructive, and a storm the size of Sandy is more than a little unusual (indeed, it is reported to be the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded). Its arrival is thus entirely consistent with the warnings that atmospheric scientists have been giving for some time.

A storm like this inevitably brings loss of life and vast destruction. My guess is that the damage from this storm will far exceed all the death and destruction that terrorists have caused in this country since 9/11. Yet we remain obsessed with the threat of Al Qaeda & Co. and we use it to justify all sorts of dubious national security policies, while taking natural disasters that are probably more serious in stride. Consider that the 2013 budget request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is $13 billion, but the Department of Homeland Security will get roughly $50 billion (or more than three times the FEMA total).

American democracy has many virtues, but careful cost-benefit analysis doesn’t appear to be one of them. In any case, no matter where you are, hope you stay dry and safe and the power doesn’t go out. And if your internet connection is still up, here’s some inspiring music….

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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