Christian Parenti has a really good article in TomDispatch about the reasons why Climate Change may change people’st thinking about the role of government:
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% 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% of all flood insurance in the United States. This federally subsidized program underwrites the other 95%. 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?
The increasing number of natural disasters attributable to climate change will make us more dependent on institutional response structures, and we are likely to have no choice but to prioritize those. At the same time, I’m less optimistic than Parenti that this will change rhetoric – after all, disaster recovery is big government, but so is the world’s largest military force, and many of those who oppose big government favor highly interventionist militarism. Imagining a sudden outbreak of consistency seems optimistic to me.
One point not mentioned is the biggest impact of climate change is most likely to be one that is hard to respond to with emergency inputs – drought. A reader who like me has been following Stuart Staniford’s reading of the climate model papers on drought mentioned it, and I thought the rest of you, if you haven’t been reading, should also follow along. There are more here and here, just in case your morning isn’t cheery enough.
Needless to say the conclusions here are terrible – if there is that much drought on a regular basis, lots of US forests will be turning into savannah (and savannahs into grasslands or deserts) and there will be huge releases of carbon dioxide from the biosphere – really nasty positive feedbacks that the climate models I’m quite sure are not capturing properly – and we are really going to turn our beautiful planet into a hell fit only for robots to live on.
Actually, I’m pretty sure the robots won’t like the grit in their gears from the massive dust storms either. Unfortunately, if you’ve been tracking this data, it isn’t really new, either. The data has suggested for years that the biggest impacts of climate change will be the drying of presently fertile lands. For example of the 17% of global grainlands that are presently irrigated, more than half are likely to lose their water supplies (that 17% of irrigated grainland produces almost a third of the world’s grains).
Drought is ongoing and chronic – governments can set up refugee camps, bring in emergency food supplies and help with resettlement, but they can’t make it rain, restore glacial melt or refill depleted aquifers. And in a world that is going to have to produce more food than ever before, that’s bad news indeed – I suspect that Parenti is right that many of us will cease to object to these government services as they become more necessary – the only question being whether anyone will fully grasp the underlying philosophical issues that lead some to undermine the infrastructure that would enable a humane and just response.