In the wake of extreme drought in much of the United States, widespread wildfires in the U.S. West and now Hurricane Sandy, President Obama's and Mitt Romney's refusal to discuss human-induced climate change will undoubtedly go down as political recklessness of historic proportions.

That "climate silence" reigned throughout the presidential campaign and in the face of multifaceted devastation fueled by a warming planet is only somewhat surprising. A political system dominated by moneyed interests and an associated Democrat-Republican duopoly greatly limits the emergence of alternative voices needed to address systemic crisis. Thus, even when global warming is discussed in Washington circles, it results in little.

Compounding the inertia is an inability to ask hard questions about much of what underlies the enormous U.S. contribution to the climate crisis: a profit-driven economic system that demands and necessitates endless growth, a global U.S. military presence that helps facilitate it, and the ecologically rapacious consumption it entails.

Clearly, we cannot expect leadership for far-reaching change to emerge on its own from the ranks of those with a deep stake in maintaining the overall status quo. The necessary push will have to come from below.

This is evidenced by what we are largely getting from prominent Democrats and Republicans with Sandy's destruction still palpable: stern-faced promises to "rebuild" and "return to normal" when what is needed is fundamentally different.

Climate science indicates that we need a radical decrease in greenhouse gas emissions within a few decades - around 90 percent over present levels - to maintain a semblance of ecological stability. Against such benchmarks, the Obama administration's initiatives thus far, such as higher car and truck emissions standards, are woefully inadequate - especially given its embrace of expanded hydro-fracking and coal mining and Arctic oil drilling.

In addition to ending U.S. stonewalling of international climate negotiations, true leadership would implement large-scale infrastructural changes in favor of mass public transit, bike-friendly cities and towns, and long-distance trains. Concurrently, it would work to significantly reduce private automobile usage and air travel - the most ecologically destructive act of consumption one can undertake.

Fortunately, there are climate justice organizations working to bring about change and to guide by example. For everyone's well-being, they need to be supported, grown and replicated so as to increase pressure on the country's ruling class. Only then, as an old adage suggests, will the leaders follow.

Editor's note

Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy- Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College.