Republican mayor will act on climate change – if it is manmade

Climate sceptic mayor of New Jersey town goes on Arctic pilgrimage in search for answers about global warming

A US flag flies amid destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in Toms River (Pic: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Nate Hauser/Released)

A US flag flies amid destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in Toms River (Pic: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Nate Hauser/Released)

By Sophie Yeo

Thomas Kelaher of Toms River, New Jersey, is the model of a small town mayor.

The Republican chief of the coastal township – which was badly battered by Hurricane Sandy – is ready to build flood defences, speak in schools and stand up to vested interests when it comes to climate change.

There is only one obstacle: he is a climate sceptic. And until he is convinced, he will not act.

“I don’t think I need anybody to tell me there’s climate change. I think the real issue is whether it’s just a natural progression or manmade. On that issue, I don’t know,” he tells RTCC.

This puts him among the 44% of Republican Party members – a figure identified in a recent study by Yale – who agree that climate change is happening.

He can see the impacts with his own eyes: from the contrast between the bare mountains today and the waist-deep snow he saw on the Sierra Mountains when he was in the Marine Corps in his youth, to the 10,000 homes that were damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

But despite a growing body of evidence – summarised in the latest UN climate science report, which concluded that man’s influence on the environment is “unequivocal” – the mayor remains unconvinced greenhouse gases are to blame.

As a man who holds the future of Toms River in his hands, Kelaher thinks it is time to make up his mind. And he has decided that the place to do it is the Arctic.

Arctic answers

To this end, in summer 2016, Kelaher will travel to Norway and spend a week sailing around the Arctic in a National Geographic Explorer ship.

He will be joined by around 100 other citizens from 20 US communities, as well as professional scientists and naturalists. The trip is organised by the Washington-based Institute on Science for Global Policy.

During the voyage, participants can quiz the experts on climate change and debate their perspectives with the others on board. They will also witness first-hand how the Arctic is responding to the warmer temperatures: its melting glaciers and retreating sea ice.

The idea is that the travellers can reach their own conclusions as they navigate their way through the clear Arctic ice – away from the muddy waters of American politics that Kelaher says has left him so confused.

“The theory is that if you have to rely on the people in public office, they have vested interests that they may or may not tell you what is correct.

“I’m not being critical at all, but you might take a US senator from the state of West Virginia, who in his heart believes that global warming is manmade with emissions from coal fired energy plants – but he would never say that publicly because his state’s main economy is coal mining.”

He adds that it will also remove the media filter. The US is a nation where news is often presented with either a conservative or liberal bias, and Kelaher says it is difficult to reach a conclusion when he is presented with conflicting views on climate change from one week to the next.

Small town politics

Climate scepticism is not just a Republican problem, adds Kelaher – the difficulty of obtaining transparent information in the US has left many people uncertain.

“The vitriolic stuff comes from a small group of people. I’m the mayor of a town that’s got almost 100,000 people. Most of them are worried about getting their kids to school, going to work, making sure we collect their garbage, and they don’t really get involved in all this stuff.

“If would be interesting to go door to door and say what do you think, and I guess a lot of people would shrug their shoulders and say I don’t know.”

But after Hurricane Sandy, Kelaher said he realised that climate change was no longer a question to shrug off, and this is why his trip could be important for the entire community.

Not only does the mayor hold the keys to creating a more resilient future for the vulnerable Toms River, he could also help to persuade others that climate change is real and that there is a need to act.

Taking on a public leadership role is written into the terms of the trip, which will also be recorded for television and social media.

“If I’m convinced that man is doing it, I have no qualms about speaking out and making my position clear, that’s for sure,” says Kelaher.

“We’d better hope it’s manmade because then we can do something about it. If it’s natural, if it’s Mother Nature, we can’t do anything to change.”

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