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Brilliant Disguise?
Chris Christie's strong performance after Hurricane Sandy ensured a landslide re-election, but the governor has done nothing to make sure his state doesn’t face more disasters.

A few weeks ago, the editorial board of New Jersey’s largest newspaper bowed to the inevitable and endorsed Chris Christie’s never-in-doubt bid to be re-elected governor. Folks outside of my adopted home state will recognize Newark’s Star-Ledger as the paper a bathrobe-clad Tony Soprano used to pick up from the end of his driveway.

My favorite part of the dripping-with-contempt editorial (the only reason Christie got the paper’s nod was that Democrats nominated an unimpressive nobody to run against him) was this: “He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.”

That’s the kind of stab-him-in-the-back endorsement that probably kept Tony reading.

The blanket condemnation of Christie’s environmental record may come as a surprise to people outside of New Jersey, who mainly see him as a moderate (he hugged Obama!—well, sorta), or who remember that he once said climate change is real. Most Garden State residents have understandably focused more on Christie’s strong leadership in the immediate wake of Hurricane Sandy, for which he certainly deserves praise. But we also shouldn't ignore that he did little before or after to help prepare the state for the kind of natural disasters expected to strengthen in the coming years due to climate change.

Christie and Obama

As someone who calls New Jersey home (and who has now had his power knocked out by freak weather for three Halloweens in a row), I’d love to see my state’s governor become a leader on the most critical issue facing human civilization. But like the Star-Ledger editorial board, I don’t find Christie’s actual record all that encouraging.

He ran for office in 2009 with what the New Jersey Environmental Federation called an “impressive green agenda on his website.” Unfortunately, the agenda has stayed entirely online. (While he’s been in office, the federation has soured on Christie.) The governor dipped his toe into climate change denialism in 2010, telling a town hall meeting he was “a little skeptical that humans are responsible and that more science was needed. So some climate scientists from New Jersey’s own Rutgers University schooled Christie, and he acknowledged in 2011 that climate change is “impacting our state” and "human activity plays a role in these changes," a position he reaffirmed in a recent gubernatorial debate. (He was reluctant to attribute Hurricane Sandy specifically to global warming in its immediate wake, which is not an entirely indefensible position, though there’s plenty of scientific evidence showing that rising sea levels “added power to the storm’s wallop.”)

These verbal gymnastics aside, it’s clear that he hasn’t been willing to do much about climate. “As governor,” environmental reporter Kate Sheppard laid out for Mother Jones, “Christie has gutted many programs that aimed to address climate change. He got rid of the Office of Climate Change and Energy within the Department of Environmental Protection shortly after taking office, withdrew the state from the Northeast's cap and trade plan known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), weakened the state's renewable energy standard, and took $210 million from the state's clean energy fund to balance the budget.” (NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, sued Christie for illegally withdrawing from RGGI. On her blog, Dale Bryk, director of NRDC’s air and energy program, makes the case for why the state should rejoin the program, which creates jobs and cuts pollution.)

Beyond that, Christie’s insistence on rebuilding the Jersey Shore to its former glory, ignoring the fact that storms like Sandy will strike again, is doing no one any favors. The New Jersey Environmental Federation—the same group that endorsed Christie in his first run for governor—criticized him roundly late last month for his post-Sandy efforts, which are doing little to make the coast safer and more resilient or account for rising sea levels (see "Overcoming Barriers").

There’s a Christie campaign commercial that’s been running a lot here in New Jersey over the past week. Unveiled on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it features the governor talking directly to the camera about arriving at the Jersey Shore via helicopter in the wake of the storm. He says the first woman he met burst into tears, hugged him, and cried: “Everything’s gone, you have to help me.” Christie, of course, promises that he will.

Christie’s insistence on rebuilding the Jersey Shore to its former glory, ignoring the fact that storms like Sandy will strike again, is doing no one any favors.

“There’s nothing more important for me to do as governor than to complete the mission of bringing their lives back to normal,” he says in the ad.

But that’s the problem: normal isn’t possible anymore. We have to prepare for a future where the seas are higher, storms are stronger, heat waves are more common, food shortages are widespread, and new diseases threaten our health. If Christie wants New Jersey to be “Stronger Than the Storm” as those controversial state tourism commercials (paid for with federal disaster money, natch) proclaim, then he should get to work on those problems.

Despite the governor’s poor environmental track record thus far, and the fact that his next political race is likely to be for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination—where Christie could have to tack right to appeal to primary voters—there are still some who hold out hope. He’s a fan of renewable energy, including wind and solar, touts energy efficiency, and has opposed offshore drilling on the Jersey coast. Christie’s willingness to acknowledge the threat of climate change and other environmental problems (under certain circumstances, at least) make him stand out from a party whose adherents are largely unwilling to do so nowadays. It’s a low bar, certainly, but he’s one of the few to clear it.

Earlier this year in Mother Jones, Sheppard (who is now at the Huffington Post) floated the possibility that Christie could help shift the politics of climate change by becoming a conservative champion for action on global warming. She quotes Rob Sisson, president of the right-leaning environmental group ConservAmerica, saying that Republicans who care about climate (they exist!) are looking for a leader. "There is no political future in the climate denial game,” Sisson said, “and I hope my fellow Republicans can now see the political pitfalls of being bullied by the most radical and irresponsible voices in our party."

Christie has certainly been willing to buck his party before—whether he hugged President Obama or not, he didn’t shy away from working with him after Sandy, even though it angered some Mitt Romney supporters. My state’s voters rewarded him for it with a landslide victory Tuesday. As he starts courting the votes of an entire country experiencing the increased effects of climate change, maybe that’ll be a lesson for him.

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image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications. CJR praised his expansion of OnEarth.org as an outlet for "bang-up investigative journalism." He also teaches at Columbia University. MORE STORIES ➔