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'The message from Harvey and the ubiquitous disasters sprouting up with increasing frequency is that we cannot afford another ten years of denial.' (Photo: Flickr/Texas Military Department/CC)

Harvey, Hell, and High Water

John Atcheson

Katrina, Sandy, Harvey. Three record-breaking storms in a dozen years. Harvey is a 1,000 year storm, Sandy had the largest diameter of any hurricane on record to strike the US, and Katrina had the largest storm surge ever recorded.

Meanwhile, the fire map for California covers the entire state, and for much of August, British Columbia’s record-breaking wildfire season blanketed the entire northwestern portion of the US and Canada with a dense, impenetrable layer of smoke and haze. Driving through western North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington recently felt and looked like a trip to Mordor. 

The disaster response map of the western US reveals wall-to-wall calamities including record breaking heat waves, an unparalleled number of fires, high winds and an accelerating drought. Not a great combination – it’s as if the entire area west of the Rockies is a smoldering tinder keg, awaiting a chance spark to erupt in flames.

On the other side of the world, some 41 million people are being displaced by one of the worst monsoon seasons on record.

We are in uncharted territory, plumbing depths of human misery unheard of in 21st Century. Until now. And Trump and his Republican enablers want to leave it that way, by dropping out of the Paris Agreement, eviscerating EPA, and cutting funds for studying climate change and educating folks on what scientists find. In what should be top-of-the-fold headlines, they’re now proposing to cut the budget for the program that monitors and maps flood zones, and to fund Trump’s precious wall by diverting money from disaster relief budgets – something they’re reconsidering since Harvey.

There are larger lessons in all this, and now is the time to learn them.

Lesson 1: Government Is Not the Problem, It's the Solution

A little over 36 years ago, Reagan said, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

The lesson from global warming is that the Republicans and neoliberal Democrats who have been advocating small government have it exactly wrong. And let’s be clear: the three-decade long campaign advocating “small government” was really about weak government.

Doubt that? Consider this: the size of government increased under Reagan and Bush—the self-proclaimed champions of small government. Here’s the numbers: under Reagan, government increased in number of employees by 237,000, and under George W. Bush it grew by 54,000. The same is true if you look at budgets. Reagan increased the deficit by 20%; Bush by 45%. 

What they were interested in was deregulation, removal of government controls of all kinds, and tax policies that benefited corporations and the ultra-rich.

Indeed, the real reason Republicans in particular reject climate change is not that they disagree with the science, it’s that they hate its implications. Specifically, climate change demands a government capable of broad and active intervention in the markets.

The reality is, as the world becomes more complex, the nature of the challenges we face become far more complex. They demand unprecedented coordination, cooperation, and organization, at every level of society – something only governments can do.

Here again, the response to Harvey shows us that we need to be able to work together on a global, national, state and local level. In fact, had we had more government controls before Harvey—things like better zoning, planning, siting and infrastructuremuch of the devastation could have been avoided. Hell, if we’d acted to prevent carbon emissions a decade ago, it’s possibleeven likelythat Harvey wouldn’t have done as much damage.

Yes, sometimes regulations are counterproductive; and yes, government can be clumsy, awkward and wasteful.  But the solution to bad regulations isn’t no regulations, it’s good regulations; and the solution to bad government isn’t no government, it’s good government.

Lesson 2: The Market Is the Problem, Not the Solution.

Since Reagan, we’ve not only worked to eviscerate government’s ability to constrain the Oligarchy, we’ve also been acting as if market forces would solve all our problems by pure serendipity. Climate change is proof positive that we’ve had it backwards all along.

Here’s the reality.  The market only measuresand pricesthings which are exchanged in the market place. It turns out that the value of externalitiesthat is, things the market doesn’t priceexceeds the entire value of the human economy.  Put another way, natural capital far exceeds human capital, and it’s not even close.

For example, a study led by Robert Costanza found that the value of “ecosystem services” equaled $142.2 trillion a year (in 2014 dollars).  The total value of the global domestic product that yearthe value of all market-mediated transactionswas a little less than $79 trillion.

It’s ludicrous to suppose that the market will deal with anything it doesn’t even acknowledge, and it’s even more ludicrous to leave out values that are nearly twice the size of the whole measured human economy.  And Costanza’s estimate of the value of natural capital only looks at 17 ecosystem services.

What we’ve learned by allowing Republicans and neoliberal Democrats to take the restraints off of the market is that it will reward the rich and screw the rest of us; while amassing enough political power to turn our government into an Oligarchy.  What we haven’t learned is that it will ultimately destroy the natural capital that is the basis of all real wealthand of life itself.

Lesson 3: We have acted too late, but It’s not too late to act

Ten years ago, Joseph Romm released a book titled, Hell and High Water, in which he forecast a world much like the one we’re in nowhot, getting hotter, and increasingly subject to floods, record breaking storms, fires, famines and worse, if we didn’t change course.

The book said we had 10 years to act. 

Much of the tragedy that is unfolding now, is a direct result of failing to do that. But it’s not too late. In fact, another 10 years of inaction will bring on a world in which existence itself will be a challenge, and prosperity a dream.

Sea level rise is now baked into the systemthat is, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gasses today, the massive ice sheets in Greenland and the west Antarctic will continue to melt. But we can slow it down by cutting emissions and that could make the difference between a manageable challenge or unmanageable crisis.  And we might be able to salvage some part of the massive eastern Antarctic ice sheets.

But the Hell part of the equation poses a different kind of challenge, one that will play out in real time.  For starters, there’s what scientists call “committed” warmingthat is, warming that will occur even if we stop emitting right now. We’ve already warmed by about 1 C, and committed warming  will add another .6 C over about 40 years, resulting in a total of increase of 1.6 C if humanity were to stop emitting fossil fuels immediately.  

The message from Harvey and the ubiquitous disasters sprouting up with increasing frequency is that we cannot afford another ten years of denial. We have to put a stake in the heart of the myths that have fed inaction. We need a competent government; a committed people; and the political courage to take on the Oligarchy. The alternative is unthinkable.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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