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Michael Meeropol: Required Reading

I would like to strongly recommend that everyone listening to this broadcast immediately go out and buy a short book (you can read it in one sitting) called THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.  (NY:  Columbia University Press, 2014)  They had previous collaborated on a highly regarded book MERCHANTS OF DOUBT (NY and London:  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011) in which they investigated the ability of large corporations (initially tobacco companies) to sow doubt about strong scientific findings that would, if followed, cut into their bottom lines.  In the case of tobacco, the companies were able to stave off the day of reckoning for decades.  Their success literally killed people. 

Merchants of Doubt inspired a documentary by the same name.  The director is Robert Kenner and it was released by SONY.   (See the film’s website at http://sonyclassics.com/merchantsofdoubt/)    The book focuses on a number of prominent scientists who have chosen to align themselves with the various industries opposing the scientific consensus.   In doing so, these individuals have in effect prostituted themselves.   One of the interesting aspects of the book is an exploration of the motivations for these scientists, who in their own fields have done good work, to nevertheless throw their lot in with industry and against the public interest.

One weakness in Merchants of Doubt is that it only spends 50 pages or so on climate denialism, which arguably is much more dangerous to the future of humanity than smoking tobacco.   It is the very same process at work that was employed by the tobacco companies and their hired guns.  Fossil fuel companies and their enablers used the scientific bona fides of certain individuals (and the book names names) to sow doubt among the general public about the virtually unanimous view of the climate scientists that the earth is warming and human activity is causing it.  THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILZATION  is a fictional account of what will happen to the earth as a result of our collective failure over the previous four decades to take action to stem carbon emissions.   Our grandchildren will live to experience the results of the successful work of the climate deniers – and, alas, many will not survive the disruptions.  The book describes a probable dystopian scenario as the temperature of the earth increases more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2050.  (by 2093 according to the book it will have risen 11 degrees).  The science underlying the book’s dire predictions is impeccable.   This is in fact a probable future given our heretofore failure to act.

[For some details of what will happen as the earth warms 2 degrees 4 degrees and 6 degrees see Mark Lynas Six Degrees, Our Future for a Hotter Planet (Fourth Estate, 2008).]

After reading that book, it is more daunting but perhaps more hopeful to read the recent Papal Encyclical on the environment.  It is named Laudato Si” which literally translates as “Praise be to you, my Lord”  The entire encyclical is available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

In this encyclical, the Pope urges all of humanity to unite to save the planet and calls out those who have assumed that there is a technocratic solution that will solve the problem before things get too bad.   Instead, the pontiff argues that humanity needs a complete revolution in our relationship to the natural world AND EACH OTHER.

The encyclical makes explicit the unequal nature of the costs imposed by the warming of the earth.  For example, the richest Bengladeshis will just move when the seas inundate most of the country  The poor will most likely starve if they haven’t already drowned.  Thus, the encyclical reminds us that we much solve the environmental problems while making sure that the burdens of change are not unequally visited on the weakest members of the human family – the exact opposite of what seems to be already happening.

Please note, the Pope is merely insisting that we all take the scientists’ warnings seriously and refuse to be lulled by the climate deniers and their politically cowardly enablers.  If people actually take his message to heart there remains some hope the nations of the world will take appropriate action to ward off at least some of the most catastrophic probabilities described in the Oreskes-Conway book.

I reproduce here just one paragraph from the encyclical to give readers a tiny tidbit ---

165. We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.

In both The Collapse of Western Civilization and the papa encyclical, a key problem is the political power of those who benefit from the current situation.  Even though the grandchildren of the elite will face the same disasters that everyone else will in the coming century, the current elites hold on to their privileges and continue to finance the deniers and support the politicians who lead our world to destruction.

So here’s my request to all who are listening.  Take a short period of time and read the Oreskes-Conway book.   If it focuses your mind on the need for humanity to take bold, decisive action, then the next step needs to be to demand of all Presidential candidates that they specifically address the dangers of global warming with specific policy proposals.  Do not permit the climate deniers to claim the public square and intimidate political candidates.   At the very least, demand that all candidates address the very straightforward policy of putting a price on carbon.  Yes, this is a tax, and yes, it will force a change not just in the way we do business but in the way some of us live our lives.  

Usually, the tax proposal is for it to be levied on carbon emissions.  A better way to levy the tax would be to tax the fossil fuels as they are extracted from the ground.  The rate of taxation can depend on the carbon in the fuel but the company would pay it just for taking it out of the ground.  The scientists whose studies of global warming have led them to sound the alarm about the catastrophes we are causing for our grandchildren  all argue that it is essential that most of the fossil fuels that have yet to be mined stay in the ground.   That is the reason for the strong opposition to the Keystone Pipeline.  Not building the pipeline will make it more expensive to extract oil from tar sands in Alberta, something the planet desperately needs.

For those who do not with to bear the costs of mitigating climate change by reducing carbon emissions or better still extractions, try and imagine what our grandchildren will think of us 70 or 80 years from now as they try to survive in a world that has a high probability of experiencing the kind of disasters described in THE COLLAPSE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION.   They will curse us for our inaction even as we are able to ignore these future problems in our own comfortable lives.  For those of us who are religious and believe in a just and all powerful God, imagine the punishments that await us.  We knew the dangers but failed to act. 

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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