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News of the devastating floods in Alberta hit Canadians hard. We’ve all been moved by extraordinary stories of first responders and neighbors stepping in to help and give selflessly at a time of great need. As people begin to pick up their lives, and talk turns to what Calgary and other communities can do to rebuild, safeguarding our irreplaceable, most precious flood-protection assets should be given top priority.
The severe floods in Alberta used to be referred to as “once in a generation” or “once in a century”. As recent floods in Europe and India are added to the list, that’s scaled up to “once in a decade”. Scientists and insurance executives alike predict extreme weather events will increase in intensity and frequency. Climate change is already having a dramatic impact on our planet. Communities around the world, like those in Alberta, are rallying to prepare.
While calls are mounting for the need to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure such as dikes, storm-water management systems and stream-channel diversion projects, we’ve overlooked one of our best climate change-fighting tools: nature. By protecting nature, we protect ourselves, our communities and our families.
The business case for maintaining and restoring nature’s ecosystems is stronger than ever. Wetlands, forests, flood plains and other natural systems absorb and store water and reduce the risk of floods and storms, usually more efficiently and cost-effectively than built infrastructure. Wetlands help control floods by storing large amounts of water during heavy rains—something paved city surfaces just don’t do.
A study of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Basins showed wetland restoration would have provided enough flood water storage to accommodate excess river flows associated with flooding in the U.S. Midwest in 1993. Research done for the City of Calgary more than 30 years ago made similar suggestions about the value of protecting flood plains from over-development. When wetlands are destroyed, the probability of a heavy rainfall causing flooding increases significantly. Yet we’re losing wetlands around the world at a rate estimated at between one and three percent a year.
By failing to work with nature in building our cities, we’ve disrupted hydrological cycles and the valuable services they provide. The readily available benefits of intact ecosystems must be replaced by man-made infrastructure that can fail and is costly to build, maintain and replace.
Protecting and restoring rich forests, flood plains and wetlands near our urban areas is critical to reduce carbon emissions and protect against the effects of climate change. Nature effectively sequesters and stores carbon, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also regulates water. Forested basins, for example, have greater capacity to absorb water than clear-cut areas where higher peak stream flows, flooding, erosion and landslides are common.
How can we protect ecosystems rather than seeing conservation as an impediment to economic growth? The answer is to recognize their real value. The David Suzuki Foundation has evaluated some of Canada’s natural assets. This approach calculates the economic contribution of natural services, such as flood protection and climate regulation, and adds that to our balance sheets. Because traditional economic calculations ignore these benefits and services, decisions often lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which we rely. Unfortunately, we often appreciate the value of an ecosystem only when it’s not there to do its job.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Cities around North America are discovering that maintaining ecosystems can save money, protect the environment and create healthier communities. A study of the Bowker Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island, BC, showed that by incorporating rain gardens, green roofs and other green infrastructure, peak flows projected for 2080 from increased precipitation due to climate change could be reduced by 95 percent. Opting to protect and restore watersheds in the 1990s rather than building costly filtration systems has saved New York City billions of dollars.
Intact ecosystems are vital in facing the climate change challenges ahead. They also give us health and quality-of-life benefits. Responsible decision-making needs to consider incentives for protecting and restoring nature, and disincentives for degrading it.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
IN WHAT OTHER WAYS CAN MAINTAINING ECOSYSTEMS HELP PREVENT NATURAL DISASTERS?
By Kaisa Kosonen
Unprecedented heatwaves, widespread food shortages, more intense cyclones and shifting rain patterns causing either floods or droughts are just some of the future problems outlined in the World Bank's latest climate report, released yesterday.
Following its groundbreaking report that warned about a four degrees Celsius warmer world, the bank has now looked at what that warming would mean for South Asia, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The picture is dramatic, with climate change threatening the future prosperity of these regions.
Four degrees may not sound like a lot, but it almost compares to the temperature difference between the last ice age and today—and happening during one person’s lifetime.
For the regions in question, two degrees would already cause severe problems, which is why we must limit warming to less than two degrees. The World Bank says this is still feasible and it calls for bold action and countries to adopt aggressive targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But what about the bank's own actions?
The World Bank President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, pledged yesterday that the bank will do everything it can to prevent the bleak future from materializing. Kim pledged the bank will step up its climate work as it increasingly looks at its business through a “climate lens.”
Well, we've done that already, and here’s what we found: the World Bank is still fueling climate change, big time.
Despite efforts to increase its renewable energy lending, in the past five years the World Bank Group still financed fossil fuels by a total of US$18 billion—nearly half of its energy lending. Since 1994, the group has financed a total of 29 coal-fired power plants in Asia alone. But this financing understates the bank’s contribution to dirty coal development, as its loans are usually a small part of the total funding package.
The latest support includes two of the biggest dirty power plants: 4800 megawatts (MW) Medupi in South Africa and 4000 MW Tata Mundra in India—both of these plants will end up high on the list of the biggest carbon dioxide (CO2) sources on earth.
The Kosovo lignite power plant project in Europe will be the first real test for Kim’s climate pledges. The bank is planning to grant guarantees for a low-efficiency coal power plant that has CO2 emissions well exceeding the average of new power plants in China, and air pollution emissions up to twice as high as those allowed under either U.S. or Chinese regulations.
The bank claims that building a new, dirty coal power plant is the only way to provide electricity to Kosovo, while even the bank’s own former renewable energy expert has shown that practical and affordable renewable energy and energy efficiency options are available and can be implemented in time.
We have been truly impressed by the efforts of Kim to bring climate change onto the political agenda again, warning about the severe consequences of the current path we’re on, but action speaks louder than words.
Together, with about 60 development, faith, human rights, community and environmental groups from more than 20 countries, Greenpeace expects the World Bank to lead by example. This means it must end support for all fossil fuel projects unless the projects are solely focused on directly increasing energy access for the poor. In most cases, including Kosovo's, better solutions exist.
It is renewable energy and energy efficiency that truly deliver for the poor—not dirty fossil fuels that are causing our climate to change.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
After a year that saw many parts of the country hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, severe storms and record flooding, a new Environment America report documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future. The report found that, already, 4 out of 5 Americans live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006. Last year’s Hurricane Irene, which resulted in the death of 45 people in the 13 states hit by the storm, and an estimated $7.3 billion in damage, is one of the extreme weather events highlighted in the report.
“Millions of Americans have lived through extreme weather causing extremely big problems for our economy and our public safety,” said Nathan Willcox, Environment America’s federal global warming program director. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”
The new report, entitled In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many Americans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available here. The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms. Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming such as sea level rise.
Key findings from the Environment America report include:
- Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 2,466 counties across the U.S. which house more than 242 million people.
- 2011 set a record with at least 14 weather disasters across the country inflicting more than $1 billion each in damage, the total cost in damages from these disasters amounted to $55 billion.
- Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.
- Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.
- Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.
Environment America was joined by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Kerry (D-MA) in releasing their report.
“Global warming is real and we are seeing significant impacts today. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions and move to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. If we move in that direction we can create, over a period of years, millions of good-paying jobs,” said Sen. Sanders.
“Years and years of peer reviewed scientific studies should've been motivation enough for Washington to get serious about climate change instead of denying its consequences and ducking tough choices. This study is the latest and the last red alert that inaction is risking lives here at home. This is not business as usual for Mother Nature. I've never in my life seen the extreme weather patterns I've witnessed with my own eyes the last years in New England, and I'm sick and tired of politicians ducking the issue and finding excuses for inaction or worse. At this point, you're either on the side of dealing with reality or you're against it," Sen. Kerry added.
Willcox noted that global warming is expected to have varying impacts on different types of extreme weather events. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is little scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes. In addition, every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather.
“The bottom line is that extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said Willcox. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.”
The report was released as the Obama administration is finalizing historic new carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to develop carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming. At the same time, some polluting industries and their allies in Congress are working to block these and other clean air standards. Environment America applauded those members of the U.S. Senate who have continued their efforts to hold polluters accountable by rejecting attacks on clean air standards.
“We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” said Willcox. “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”
For more information, click here.
By Janet Larsen and Sara Rasmussen
The global average temperature in 2011 was 14.52 degrees Celsius (58.14 degrees Fahrenheit). According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists, this was the ninth warmest year in 132 years of recordkeeping, despite the cooling influence of the La Niña atmospheric and oceanic circulation pattern and relatively low solar irradiance. Since the 1970s, each subsequent decade has gotten hotter—and 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century.
Each year’s average temperature is determined by a number of factors, including solar activity and the status of the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon. But heat-trapping gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, have become a dominant force, pushing the Earth’s climate out of its normal range. The planet is now close to 0.8 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Hidden within annual averages and expected variability are startling instances of new temperature and rainfall records in many parts of the world—weather extremes that would once be considered anomalies but that now risk becoming the new norm as the Earth heats up.
Worldwide, 2011 was the second wettest year on record over land. (The record was set in 2010, which also tied 2005 as the warmest overall.) Heavier deluges are expected on a warmer planet. Each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius increases the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold by about 7 percent. Higher temperatures also can fuel stronger storms.
Brazil started the year with the deadliest natural disaster in its history—in January, a month’s worth of rain fell in a single day in Rio de Janeiro state, leading to floods and landslides that killed at least 900 people. That same month, flooding in eastern Australia covered an area nearly the size of France and Germany combined. Overall, it was the third wettest year in Australia since recordkeeping began in 1900.
The most expensive weather disaster of 2011 was the flooding in Thailand in the second half of the year, which ultimately submerged one third of the country’s provinces. At $45 billion worth of damage—equal to 14 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product—it was also the costliest natural catastrophe the country ever experienced.
In October, more than 100 people died as two storms—one from the Pacific and the other from the Caribbean—pounded Central America with rain. In western El Salvador, nearly 1.5 meters of rain (almost 5 feet) fell over 10 days. And in December, Tropical Storm Washi hit the Philippines, creating flash floods that killed more than 1,200 people.
The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season had 19 named storms. Hurricane Irene brought extreme flooding to the northeastern U.S. in August, with total damages topping $7.3 billion. The year was the wettest on the books for seven states in the country, while it was among the driest for several others. Although the extremes appear to balance out, making for a near-average year, in fact a record 58 percent of the contiguous U.S. was either extremely wet or extremely dry in 2011.
Indeed, as is expected on a hotter planet, while some parts of the globe were overwhelmed by rain in 2011, others were distinguished by dryness. A severe drought in the Horn of Africa that began in 2010 devolved into a crisis situation in 2011, characterized by crop failure, exorbitant food prices, and widespread malnutrition. Exacerbated by chronic political instability and a belated humanitarian response, the death toll may have exceeded 50,000 people.
Back in North America, a drought that began in late 2010 and worsened over 2011 led hundreds of farmers from northern Mexico to march to that nation’s capital in January 2012 to draw the government’s attention to their suffering. Nearly 900,000 hectares of farmland (some 2.2 million acres) and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost due to the dryness—the worst in Mexico’s 70+ years of data collecting.
Scorching heat, drought, and wildfires across the U.S. Southern Plains and Southwest caused farm, ranch, and forestry damages that exceeded $10 billion in 2011. Wichita Falls, Texas, experienced 100 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit—far more than the previous record of 79 days set in 1980. Oklahoma and Texas had the hottest summers of any states in history, breaking by a wide margin the record set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes that the likelihood of such extreme heat waves “was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.” Texas also had its lowest rainfall on record. Invigorated by the heat and drought, wildfires burned across an estimated 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) in the state.
For the continental U.S., summer 2011 was the second warmest in history. Nearly three times more weather stations hit record highs than lows in 2011, in line with a trend of increasing heat extremes. Whereas in the middle of the 20th century there were close to the same number of record highs and lows—as would be expected absent a strong warming trend—in the 1990s highs began outpacing lows. In the first decade of this century, there were twice as many record highs as record lows.
Worldwide, seven countries set all-time temperature highs in 2011—Armenia, China, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Interestingly, Zambia also was the only country to experience an all-time low temperature when it dropped to -9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) in June. Kuwait experienced the year’s highest temperature, with thermometers measuring a searing 53.3 degrees Celsius (127.9 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth during the month of August. Even more threatening to health than daytime highs are extra hot nighttime minimum temperatures, which do not allow any respite from the heat. The world’s hottest 24-hour minimum ever—41.7 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit)—was recorded in Oman in June 2011.
Even the Arctic had a notably warm year, with the 2011 temperature a record 2.2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mean for 1951–80. Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost U.S. city, spent a record-breaking 86 consecutive days at or above freezing, far more than the previous record of 68 days set in 2009.
In fact, over the last 50 years temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than twice as fast as the global average, melting ice and thawing permafrost. Arctic sea ice has been shrinking more rapidly, falling to its lowest volume and second lowest area on record during the 2011 summer melt season. With the summertime ice loss outpacing wintertime recovery, Arctic sea ice has thinned, making it increasingly vulnerable to further melting. Scientists expect a completely ice-free summertime Arctic by 2030 or even earlier.
As the reflective ice disappears, it exposes the dark ocean, which more readily absorbs solar energy, further warming the region. This sets forth a climate cascade, accelerating ice loss both in the ocean as well as on nearby Greenland, which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by 7 meters (23 feet) if it completely melted. The warming also thaws Arctic permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, further accelerating global warming.
Even without fully incorporating such climate feedback, models show that continued reliance on fossil fuels could raise the global temperature by up to 7 degrees Celsius (over 12 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Such an elevated temperature would amplify temperature and precipitation extremes enough to make the weather events of recent years look tame in comparison. Only a rapid, dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions can hold future temperatures in a range bearing any resemblance to what civilization has known.
For more information, click here.
Look back on 2011 and you’ll notice a destructive trail of extreme weather slashing through the year. In Texas, it was the driest year ever recorded. An epic drought there killed half a billion trees, touched off wildfires that burned four million acres, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and buildings. The costs to agriculture, particularly the cotton and cattle businesses, are estimated at $5.2 billion—and keep in mind that, in a winter breaking all sorts of records for warmth, the Texas drought is not yet over.
In August, the East Coast had a close brush with calamity in the form of Hurricane Irene. Luckily, that storm had spent most of its energy by the time it hit land near New York City. Nonetheless, its rains did at least $7 billion worth of damage, putting it just below the $7.2 billion worth of chaos caused by Katrina back in 2005.
Across the planet the story was similar. Wildfires consumed large swaths of Chile. Colombia suffered its second year of endless rain, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. In Brazil, the life-giving Amazon River was running low due to drought. Northern Mexico is still suffering from its worst drought in 70 years. Flooding in the Thai capital, Bangkok, killed more than 500 and displaced or damaged the property of 12 million others, while ruining some of the world’s largest industrial parks. The World Bank estimates the damage in Thailand at a mind-boggling $45 billion, making it one of the most expensive disasters ever. And that’s just to start a 2011 extreme-weather list, not to end it.
Such calamities, devastating for those affected, have important implications for how we think about the role of government in our future. During natural disasters, society regularly turns to the state for help, which means such immediate crises are a much-needed reminder of just how important a functional big government turns out to be to our survival.
These days, big government gets big press attention—none of it anything but terrible. In the U.S., especially in an election year, it’s become fashionable to beat up on the public sector and all things governmental (except the military). The Right does it nonstop. All their talking points disparage the role of an oversized federal government. Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist famously set the tone for this assault. "I'm not in favor of abolishing the government,” he said. “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." He has managed to get 235 members of the House of Representatives and 41 members of the Senate to sign his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and thereby swear never, under any circumstances, to raise taxes.
By now, this viewpoint has taken on the aura of folk wisdom, as if the essence of democracy were to hate government. Even many on the Left now regularly dismiss government as nothing but oversized, wasteful, bureaucratic, corrupt, and oppressive, without giving serious consideration to how essential it may be to our lives.
But don’t expect the present “consensus” to last. Global warming and the freaky, increasingly extreme weather that will accompany it is going to change all that. After all, there is only one institution that actually has the capacity to deal with multibillion-dollar natural disasters on an increasingly routine basis. Private security firms won’t help your flooded or tornado-struck town. Private insurance companies are systematically withdrawing coverage from vulnerable coastal areas. Voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity groups—each may prove helpful in limited ways, but for better or worse, only government has the capital and capacity to deal with the catastrophic implications of climate change.
Consider Hurricane Irene—as it passed through the Northeast, states mobilized more than 100,000 National Guard troops. New York City opened 78 public emergency shelters prepared to house up to 70,000 people. In my home state, Vermont, where the storm devastated the landscape, destroying or damaging 200 bridges, more than 500 miles of road, and 100 miles of railroad, the National Guard airlifted in free food, water, diapers, baby formula, medicine, and tarps to thousands of desperate Vermonters trapped in 13 stranded towns—all free of charge to the victims of the storm.
The damage to Vermont was estimated at up to $1 billion. Yet the state only has 621,000 residents, so it could never have raised all the money needed to rebuild alone. Vermont businesses, individuals, and foundations have donated at least $4 million, possibly up to $6 million in assistance, an impressive figure, but not a fraction of what was needed. The state government immediately released $24 million in funds, crucial to getting its system of roads rebuilt and functioning, but again that was a drop in the bucket, given the level of damage. A little known state-owned bank, the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank, also offered low-interest, low-collateral loans to towns to aid reconstruction efforts. But without federal money, which covered 80 to 100 percent of the costs of rebuilding many Vermont roads, the state would still be an economic basket case. Without aid from Washington, the transportation network might have taken years to recover.
As for flood insurance, the federal government is pretty much the only place to get it. The National Flood Insurance Program has written 5.5 million policies in more than 21,000 communities covering $1.2 trillion worth of property. As for the vaunted private market, for-profit insurance companies write between 180,000 and 200,000 policies in a given year. In other words, that is less than 5 percent of all flood insurance in the U.S. This federally subsidized program underwrites the other 95 percent. Without such insurance, it’s not complicated—many waterlogged victims of 2011, whether from record Midwestern floods or Hurricane Irene, would simply have no money to rebuild.
Or consider sweltering Texas. In 2011, firefighters responded to 23,519 fires. In all, 2,742 homes were destroyed by out-of-control wildfires. But government action saved 34,756 other homes. So you decide—Was this another case of wasteful government intervention in the marketplace, or an extremely efficient use of resources?
Facing Snowpocalypse Without Plow
The early years of this century have already offered a number of examples of how disastrous too little government can be in the face of natural disaster, Katrina-inundated New Orleans in 2005 being perhaps the quintessential case.
There are, however, other less noted examples that nonetheless helped concentrate the minds of government planners. For example, in the early spring of 2011, a massive blizzard hit New York City. Dubbed “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse,” the storm arrived in the midst of tense statewide budget negotiations, and a nationwide assault on state workers (and their pensions).
In New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was pushing for cuts to the sanitation department budget. As the snow piled up, the people tasked with removing it—sanitation workers—failed to appear in sufficient numbers. As the city ground to a halt, New Yorkers were left to fend for themselves with nothing but shovels, their cars, doorways, stores, roads all hopelessly buried. Chaos ensued. Though nowhere near as destructive as Katrina, the storm became a case study in too little governance and the all-too-distinct limits of “self-reliance” when nature runs amuck. In the week that followed, even the rich were stranded amid the mounting heaps of snow and uncollected garbage.
Mayor Bloomberg emerged from the debacle chastened, even though he accused the union of staging a soft strike, a work-to-rule-style slowdown that held the snowbound city hostage. The union denied engaging in any such illegal actions. Whatever the case, the blizzard focused thinking locally on the nature of public workers. It suddenly made sanitation workers less invisible and forced a set of questions—Are public workers really “union fat cats” with “sinecures” gorging at the public trough? Or are they as essential to the basic functions of the city as white blood cells to the health of the human body? Clearly, in snowbound New York it was the latter. No sanitation workers and your city instantly turns chaotic and fills with garbage, leaving street after street lined with the stuff.
More broadly the question raised was—Can an individual, a town, a city, even a state really “go it alone” when the weather turns genuinely threatening? Briefly, all the union bashing and attacks on the public sector that had marked that year’s state-level budget debates began to sound unhinged.
In the Big Apple at least, when Irene came calling that August, Mayor Bloomberg was ready. He wasn’t dissing or scolding unions. He wasn’t whining about the cost of running a government. He embraced planning, the public sector, public workers, and coordinated collective action. His administration took unprecedented steps like shutting down the subway and moving its trains to higher ground. Good thing they did. Several low-lying subway yards flooded. Had trains been parked there, many millions in public capital might have been lost or damaged.
The Secret History of Free Enterprise in America
When thinking about the forces of nature and the nature of infrastructure, a slightly longer view of history is instructive. And here’s where to start—in the U.S., despite its official pro-market myths, government has always been the main force behind the development of a national infrastructure, and so of the country’s overall economic prosperity.
One can trace the origins of state participation in the economy back to at least the founding of the republic—from Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States, which refloated the entire post-revolutionary economy when it bought otherwise worthless colonial debts at face value; to Henry Clay’s half-realized program of public investment and planning called the American System; to the New York State-funded Erie Canal, which made the future Big Apple the economic focus of the eastern seaboard; to the railroads, built on government land grants, that took the economy west and tied the nation together; to New Deal programs that helped pulled the country out of the Great Depression and built much of the infrastructure we still use like the Hoover Dam, scores of major bridges, hospitals, schools, and so on; to the government-funded and sponsored interstate highway system launched in the late 1950s; to the similarly funded space race, and beyond. It’s simple enough: big government investments (and thus big government) has been central to the remarkable economic dynamism of the country.
Government has created roads, highways, railways, ports, the postal system, inland waterways, universities, and telecommunications systems. Government-funded R&D, as well as the buying patterns of government agencies—(alas!) both often connected to war and war-making plans—have driven innovation in everything from textiles and shipbuilding to telecoms, medicine, and high-tech breakthroughs of all sorts. Individuals invent technology, but in the U.S. it is almost always public money that brings the technology to scale, be it in aeronautics, medicine, computers, or agriculture.
Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy. Yes, the entrepreneurs we are taught to venerate have been key to all this, but dig a little deeper and you soon find that most of their oil was on public lands, their technology nurtured or invented thanks to government-sponsored R&D, or supported by excellent public infrastructure and the possibility of hiring well-educated workers produced by a heavily subsidized higher-education system. Just to cite one recent example, the now-familiar Siri voice-activated command system on the new iPhone is based on—brace yourself—government-developed technology.
And here’s a curious thing—everybody more or less knows all this and yet it is almost never acknowledged. If one were to write the secret history of free enterprise in the U.S., one would have to acknowledge that it has always been and remains at least a little bit socialist. However, it’s not considered proper to discuss government planning in open, realistic, and mature terms, so we fail to talk about what government could—or rather, must—do to help us meet the future of climate change.
The onset of ever more extreme and repeated weather events is likely to change how we think about the role of the state. But attitudes toward the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which stands behind state and local disaster responses, suggest that we’re hardly at that moment yet. In late 2011, with Americans beleaguered by weather disasters, FEMA came under attack from congressional Republicans, eager to starve it of funds. One look at FEMA explains why.
Yes, when George W. Bush put an unqualified playboy at its helm, the agency dealt disastrously with Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Under better leadership, however, it has been anything but the sinister apparatus of repression portrayed by legions of rightists and conspiracy theorists. FEMA is, in fact, an eminently effective mechanism for planning focused on the public good, not private profit, a form of public insurance and public assistance for Americans struck by disaster. Every year FEMA gives hundreds of millions of dollars to local firefighters and first responders, as well as victims dealing with the aftershock of floods, fires, and the other calamities associated with extreme weather events.
The agency’s work is structured around what it calls “the disaster life cycle”—the process through which emergency managers prepare for, respond to, and help others recover from and reduce the risk of disasters. More concretely, FEMA’s services include training, planning, coordinating, and funding state and local disaster managers and first responders, grant-making to local governments, institutions, and individuals, and direct emergency assistance that ranges from psychological counseling and medical aid to emergency unemployment benefits. FEMA also subsidizes long-term rebuilding and planning efforts by communities affected by disasters. In other words, it actually represents an excellent use of your tax dollars to provide services aimed at restoring local economic health and so the tax base. The anti-government Right hates FEMA for the same reason that they hate Social Security—because it works!
As it happens, thanks in part to the congressional GOP’s sabotage efforts, thousands of FEMA’s long-term recovery projects are now on hold, while the cash-strapped agency shifts its resources to deal with only the most immediate crises. This represents a dangerous trend, given what historical statistics tell us about our future. In recent decades, the number of Major Disaster Declarations by the federal government has been escalating sharply—only 12 in 1961, 17 in 1971, 15 in 1981, 43 in 1991, and in 2011—99! As a result, just when Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, FEMA’s disaster relief fund had already been depleted from $2.4 billion as the year began to a mere $792 million.
Like it or not, government is a huge part of our economy. Altogether, federal, state, and local government activity—that is collecting fees, taxing, borrowing and then spending on wages, procurement, contracting, grant-making, subsidies and aid—constitutes about 35 percent of the gross domestic product. You could say that we already live in a somewhat “mixed economy”—that is, an economy that fundamentally combines private and public economic activity.
The intensification of climate change means that we need to acknowledge the chaotic future we face and start planning for it. Think of what’s coming, if you will, as a kind of storm socialism.
After all, climate scientists believe that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beyond 350 parts-per-million (ppm) could set off compounding feedback loops and so lock us into runaway climate change. We are already at 392 ppm. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels immediately, the disruptive effect of accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere is guaranteed to hammer us for decades. In other words, according to the best-case scenario, we face decades of increasingly chaotic and violent weather.
In the face of an unraveling climate system, there is no way that private enterprise alone will meet the threat. And though small “d” democracy and “community” may be key parts of a strong, functional, and fair society, volunteerism and “self-organization” alone will prove as incapable as private enterprise in responding to the massive challenges now beginning to unfold.
To adapt to climate change will mean coming together on a large scale and mobilizing society’s full range of resources. In other words, Big Storms require Big Government. Who else will save stranded climate refugees, or protect and rebuild infrastructure, or coordinate rescue efforts and plan out the flow and allocation of resources?
It will be government that does these tasks or they will not be done at all.
Christian Parenti, author of the recently published Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books), is a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, a Puffin Writing Fellow, and a professor at the School for International Training, Graduate Institute. His articles have appeared in Fortune, the New York Times, the Washington Post, TomDispatch, and the London Review of Books, among other places. To learn more about Christian Parenti's work, visit his website by clicking here.
Cross-posted with permission from TomDispatch.com.