GLOUCESTER — Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the East Coast has catapulted the debates over climate change and federal disaster relief, largely ignored in national campaigns this year, back into prominence in the contentious race between Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren.
Warren, a Democrat, and Brown, a Republican, declined Wednesday to draw a direct link between the hurricane and global warming. But both called climate change a problem.
“It is an urgent problem we need to deal with in this country,” Warren said in Gloucester, greeting a crowd of supporters on Main Street.
After touring a seawall at Long Beach in Plymouth battered during the hurricane, Brown said, “I’ll leave that up to the scientists, as to where we stand” on the relationship between climate change and violent weather.
“But I believe in climate change,” said Brown, who had expressed uncertainty on the issue during his 2010 campaign. “I believe man and nature play a role. It’s a question of how do we step back and try to address it. I recycle all the time. . . .’’
While one storm cannot be attributed to climate change, scientists say global warming contributes to the power and frequency of major storms. In addition, rising sea levels caused by melting ice caps are believed to increase the risk of flooding like that seen along the Eastern Seaboard in Sandy’s wake.
On Wednesday, Warren attacked Brown’s vote to protect tax subsidies for oil companies. “It means that clean energy is competing uphill,” she said. “It’s competing against a subsidized industry, and that just doesn’t make any sense.”
She also renewed her argument that Brown’s election could tip control of the Senate to Republicans, elevating James Inhofe, an Oklahoma senator who believes climate science is a hoax, to lead the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency.
“If Republicans are in control of the United States Senate, the direction this country heads on climate change is not a good one,” Warren said. “Scott Brown’s out there trying to get reelected and put those people in power.”
Brown fought back, suggesting Warren’s focus on Inhofe was a distraction. “I know he’s from Oklahoma, so they must have a little thing,’’ he said. “They keep battling against each other. But she’s running against me.”
Turning serious, he argued that he would be a buffer against the more conservative elements of his party.
He said that he would be there “as one of the moderates in the middle, Democrats and Republicans, pushing against any of the extremes down there,” and that Warren “would be in lockstep with her party.”
Even as Warren has received the endorsements of several environmental organizations, she has not embraced two legislative priorities that some have prescribed for curbing carbon emissions: an increase in the gas tax and a cap-and-trade program which would provide economic incentives to reduce emissions. Brown also opposes both of those ideas.
On Wednesday, Warren sought to point out other differences she has with Brown on environmental policies, including her support for Cape Wind and other offshore projects.
Brown said he supports “a total energy approach” so “we can step back from our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.”
Both dismissed the idea raised by Mitt Romney that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be closed in order to allow states to handle disaster relief. Romney backtracked from that idea following Hurricane Sandy.
Warren argued that House Republicans have tried to hold up funding for FEMA unless Congress found spending cuts elsewhere in the budget to subsidize that disaster relief. “The Republicans, in their blueprint, have said when the money is needed, you’ve got to take it from somewhere else,” she said. “So in other words, not as much money for FEMA.”
But Brown voted against that plan in the Senate and worked with Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Republicans of Maine, to protect disaster assistance and ensure that “we don’t always have to go beg for money” during calamities.