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Michael Meeropol: Are We Finally Ready To Take Action On Climate Change?

Both the long run and the short run issues of Climate Change were available in bold stark messages the week of June 21-27.   To start in the short run, we saw one immediate effect of climate change in the collapse of the building in South Florida (possibly caused by water undermining the building’s foundation --- water seepage caused by sea level rise).

[According to a CNBC report: “Two months before the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium tower collapsed, the condo’s president sent a letter to residents warning them about structural issues.   She pointed out “concrete deterioration” in the building’s parking garage and elsewhere was “accelerating” and damage had “gotten significantly worse” since an inspection three years ago. In that 2018 inspection, the engineer found cracked columns, beams, and walls in the parking garage and “major structural damage” under the pool.”  (Emily DeCiccio, “Renowned structural engineer says multiple factors may have contributed to Florida building collapse,” CNBC, 6/29/2021).  An obvious reason for the structural damage in the building’s foundation is water seepage caused by sea level rise which of course is a major effect of climate change.  As ice caps melt (Antarctica, Greenland) and huge chunks slide into the oceans, sea level is already starting to rise as evidenced by more and more flooding in South Florida.]

Another short run phenomenon was the unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest – a heat wave that stretched up into British Columbia as well.   In both the US and Canadian heat waves, people used to getting by without central air conditioning were seriously at risk. 

[See Elinor Aspegren, “Authorities investigate hundreds of deaths linked to torrid Pacific Northwest weather,” USA Today (6/30/2021).  The connection of the heat wave to climate change is made crystal clear in Anne C. Mulkern, “Unprecedented Heat Wave in Pacific Northwest Driven by Climate Change, Pacific Ocean cyclones are pumping up the high pressure system roasting the region,”   Scientific American, E & E News, (6/28/2021) .]

The long run issue was on display in the on-going debate in Congress as to whether infrastructure changes aimed at slowing down global warming in the long run were essential --- that it is not sufficient to merely cope with the effects of global warming by, for example,  strengthening highways and bridges and raising sea walls.   A bi-partisan group of Senators agreed to a traditional (narrowly focused) infrastructure package while only Democrats seem interested in the more long-run orientation of the ambitious plans proposed by the administration.

[For details, see Emma Newburger, “Bipartisan infrastructure deal omits major climate change measures” CNBC, June 24, 2021 (revised June 25) ]

The week ended on Sunday, June 27 with the New York Times putting the long run problem front and center by devoting their entire Sunday Magazine to “the climate issue.”   The front cover is filled with pictures of pipes, trucks, airplanes, ships, food, insects, etc. with a globe in the middle and underneath it a short subtitle: “The only solution is everything.”   This issue should be required reading for all of us --- it attempts to concentrate our minds on problems that are JUST BEGINNING to intrude on our everyday lives but which require very radical solutions to head off catastrophes that right now can only be dreamt of by futurists, novelists and other very creative people.

[The website for the NY Times Magazine is https://www.nytimes.com/section/magazine.  I am not sure how easy it is for non subscribers to access it, but this is such an important issue I think it’s worth a trip to the library to read it.   Beginning on page 26 there are five very meaty articles.  They are Joe Gertner, “Better Living Through CO2” about the manufacturing techniques to pull carbon out of the atmosphere (26), Ezra Klein moderates a discussion, “The Politics of Saving the World” (34), Aurora Almendral, “Greening the Waves” which explores the possibility of using air power to move ocean-going ships (40), Jessica Aguirre, “The Takedown of Big Oil” which explores the efforts of activist investors to change the direction of the oil giant Exxon-Mobil (46), and Bernard Ferguson, “Damage and Loss” about how to compensate island nations slowing being inundated by rising seas caused by global warming (52).]

[In previous commentaries I have recommended two very important books:  Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, A View From the Future (NY:  Columbia University Press, 2014) and Omar El Akkad, American War (NY:  Picador, 2017).   Akkad’s is a novel set in the near future when the US has been ravaged by civil war because the federal government tried to ban the burning of fossil fuels and the South took up arms in resistance.  The Oreskes/Conway book is an imaginary report from 2393 about the collapse of Western Civilization in 2093 due to global warming.  The “report” attempts to explain why with all the knowledge and technologies available to stop and reverse global warming, the world governments refused to take the necessary actions.  Both books are chilling and very scary.]  

The article entitled, “The Politics of Saving the World,” involves a discussion featuring four experts – technological, literary, political and academic.  Saul Griffith is a scientist working for Otherlab and Rewiring America – the latter a nonprofit seeing rapid electrification as one solution to the climate problem.  Rhiana Gunn-Wright is climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute and one of the authors of the Green New Deal proposals.  Sheila Jasanoff is a Professor of science and technology studies at Harvard.  Kim Stanley Robinson is a novelist whose book The Ministry for the Future is an attempt to imagine the kinds of changes that just might slow and ultimately reverse global warming, even as disasters strike.  The discussion is moderated by Ezra Klein, a journalist and political analyst.

The question for the four participants was whether America’s political system is capable of making the changes required to mitigate the worst of the potential long run consequences.  At the end of the discussion it was clear that the ability of the American political-economic system to make those necessary changes remains an open question.   My reading of the Robinson novel is that there are things that could be done today that would start to slow the rate of carbon dispersal and therefore the rate of temperature change – and these can ultimately lead to a reversal of climate change.  Unfortunately, as the Oreskes and Conway novel makes clear, the political will to make the changes might not be there.  Certainly, had Trump been re-elected there would have been no chance to make ANY of the changes needed.

[To access the discussion see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/magazine/ezra-klein-climate-crisis.html.]

Why is that so?   Why is there no political will?   Some of it is as simple as the willingness of people to look at something that happens in the present and assume it will happen the same way into the future.   The sun rises every morning, the seasons change, and every winter there is cold weather with snow.   Thus, on February 26, 2015, Senator James Imhoff of Oklahoma brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to prove that global warming predictions were a hoax. 

This simple view is not a joke.  Most people see winter coming every year and many will therefore scoff at scientists who measure these things over time and warn that average global temperatures are going up, ocean temperatures are going up, and there are REAL EFFECTS now in the short run --- like sea level rises and temperature spikes and a longer and more dangerous hurricane season and a longer and more dangerous fire season.  In addition, some of the changes that need to be made will reduce the income and wealth and power of people who are used to be on the top of the heap.

In terms of economics, I always remember a statement by the great British economist Joan Robinson who explained economic fluctuations with the pithy assertion that “businessmen” (she used that language) over-value the present in formulating their expectations about future sales, etc.   So the reason they expand capacity too much in boom times is they think the recent good times will continue.  The reason they cut back on spending in bad times is they see sales falling and don’t want to spend money until they see the sales reversal.

Executives of giant corporations may know that sooner or later they will have to use different energy sources (and if they are energy suppliers they will have to transition out of utilizing fossil fuels) but they fight like tigers to protect their bottom lines in the present.  This of course, leads to tremendous amount of political support from these companies to politicians who pooh-pooh warnings from scientists about the effects of global warming.  And this attempt to hoodwink the general public finds receptivity among those worried about having to give up their affluent lifestyles.

This focus on the short run benefits of doing nothing to mitigate (and reverse) climate change ignores the absolutely certain long run effects (the only thing uncertain is how long it will take for the disasters to occur – the casualties in Florida and the hundreds dead in the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Province of British Columbia are evidence that for some of us, the disasters are already here!).   In other words, the actions of executives pushing resistance to the changes needed to combat global warming --- resistance that has been successful so far despite warnings dating all the way back to the 1970s which became more insistent in the 1990s --- may actually lead to the deaths of many of our grandchildren.   The solution for many of these executives is probably that they hope their kids will be rich enough so that their grandkids will be among the few who survive climate change disasters.

This approach is, obviously, not very helpful for the rest of us.

Which brings me back to the short run issues.  The discussants in the New York Times Magazine did note that some of the recent proposals from the Biden Administration, indicate a rather rapid shifting of public opinion which might --- remember MIGHT --- suggest that the dramatic changes actually needed are more likely today than they were, say, six months ago.

[For details of the Biden Administration’s proposals in the “larger” infrastructure plan see, Emma Newburger, “Here’s how Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan addresses climate change” CNBC, (3/31/2021).  The discussants made clear that these proposals and the whole Green New Deal set of proposals are just steps in the right direction.  The proposals themselves do not go far enough.  HOWEVER, during the course of the discussion, they made clear that these steps actually might be the beginning of an acceleration in activity.  As Saul Griffith put it, “We might just be at the very beginning of the reinforcing cycle of ambition begetting more commitment, which begets more ambition,” and Robinson stated, “I feel we’ve got momentum in 2021 that is simply stupendous compared with 2019… It’s one of those rapid cultural transitions that happens from time to time, and I don’t see why there would be any turning back if the momentum gathers even a little bit more.”  (NY Times Magazine  (6/27;/2021): 37 and 39)] 

I sure as Hell hope so.   I want my grandkids to live as well as I have.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition 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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