Experts predict sharply escalating financial and security risks with climate change
By Francesca Rheannon
While estimates of the insured losses from Hurricane Irene (in the U.S. alone) are currently coming in at “only” around $5 billion, the mounting – and unanticipated – economic toll that is emerging from inland regions like Vermont and upstate New York threatens to send the final numbers far beyond.
According to the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA, so far this year, the economic damage costs of extreme weather exceed $35 billion – before accounting for any losses from Hurricane Irene. The storm was the 10th billion-dollar weather event of 2011in the U.S.—and it’s just the beginning of hurricane season. The others include flooding in the upper Midwest U.S. (estimated losses more than $2 billion), flooding of the Mississippi River region ($2 to $4 billion), continuing drought, wildfires and heat waves in the Southwest and southern Plains (losses in excess of $5 billion so far), tornadoes in the Midwest, Ohio and Southeast (total losses greater than $22 billion) and Snowpocalypse in the central, middle Atlantic and northeast states (more than $2 billion). More than 600 people have lost their lives.
While no one weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change, the pattern of more frequent and severe weather is what we can expect as the planet’s climate warms.
The response from FEMA and state and local governments has been nothing less than heroic, but they have to do more with less – and that’s not sustainable. Many state and local governments have been so hammered by the Main Street Recession (as opposed to Wall Street’s recovery) that they are nearly or entirely out of funds to handle emergencies. Basic police and fire services are being cut back or eliminated.
FEMA itself is in the cross-hairs of budget slashing ideologues in Congress (with the White House meekly following behind). The agency is almost out of funds – and House Speaker Eric Cantor wants to make sure, if any new funds are provided, it will come out of other budget items. Favorite targets of conservatives include clean energy, the EPA, weather forecasting, education, health and infrastructure spending. Presidential candidate Ron Paul thinks FEMA should be abolished entirely.
This is exactly the wrong road to go down, says climate economist Rachel Cleetus. A specialist for the Union of Concerned Scientists in the costs of inaction in dealing with climate change, Cleetus says squeezing dry the capacity of government to respond to emergencies will just push the cost onto the shoulders of citizens and businesses. “That means much of disaster rebuilding will remain unfinished,” she told CSRwire, since only the public sector can rebuild the infrastructure, like washed out roads and bridges, upon which economic life depends. And, except for a financial elite disinclined to invest in real production, individuals and businesses are already in a world of hurt.
Another major risk of climate change is emerging into greater awareness: the security risk. A new study published recently in Nature draws a link between increased civil conflict and climate change. It’s also the topic of journalist Christian Parenti’s terrific new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (you can watch him talking about it here).
Parenti points to a “catastrophic convergence,” where “climate change arrives in the world primed for crisis… intersecting with the already existing crises of poverty and violence.” The convergence is affecting most severely the band of post-colonial societies around the planet's middle between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. But we all live on the same planet together, and if the global South goes down, the global North will not be far behind.
In fact, the global North is complicit – or even the major factor – behind much of the violence already affecting societies stressed by poverty and climate change. Parenti says that the kind of counterinsurgency wars the U.S. and its NATO allies are – and will continue to be – embroiled in are in “failed states” whose failure can be directly tied to the decimation of traditional societies wrought by colonialism and post-colonial neoliberalism. Iraq was a wholly-created fiction of western oil interests; the Somalian pirates emerged from the decimation of their traditional fisheries by international industrial fishing trawlers—the kind of blowback that globalization will increasingly bring in a water and food-stressed, warming planet. The Pentagon, Parenti says, “is planning for Armageddon.”
Parenti begins Tropic of Chaos with the murder of a pastoral tribesman from northwest Kenya, killed in a cattle raid. Driven by extreme drought, his people had pushed up against the borders of their traditional enemies, the Pokot tribe, exposing themselves and their cattle to predation and murder.
But it wasn't just a case of the ancient enmities of tribe against tribe. Instead, the Pokots are cattle thieves linked to an international system, selling their plunder to traders embedded in the global market. Here in microcosm is the deadly convergence of poverty, violence driven by globalization and climate change.
“Damaged societies respond [to crises] in irrational and self-destructive ways,” Parenti writes. But that statement can apply as much to the U.S., standing at the peak of the world’s economy, as to failed states in the global South. With its climate denying creationists underwritten by climate denying fossil fuel corporations, its dwindling middle class and bloated military, the moribund capitalist society of the U.S., is fast proving its own inability to grapple with the monster bearing down on us with the speed and force of a hurricane.
Rather than dealing with these problems with the politics and economics that can successfully adapt to the great crises facing us, the politics of the “armed life boat” dominate – a "politics based on exclusion, segregation and repression" – one that is “horrific and bound to fail.” The rise of xenophobic movements in Europe and anti-immigration hysteria in the U.S. will try to hold back the tide of climate refugees, but who will take us in when we become refugees?
The great scientist James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, thinks by the end of the century the human population, reduced to about 1 billion by the wholesale collapse of the environment, will be confined to the Arctic as the only inhabitable place.
But if Christian Parenti is correct – and all indications are that he is – war will come to the Arctic, too. NPR recently had a series on how global warming will open up the Arctic to competition over the fossil fuel resources that lie underneath the now thinning ice. That competition is unlikely to stay peaceful. Will humanity trash its last refuge as the last act in the catastrophic convergence?
There may still be time to shift the balance of forces toward real adaptation. And capitalism can still be part of the solution, instead of the problem. Parenti writes:
World civilization, this largely capitalist global economy, for all its exploitation and inequity, has produced phenomenal wealth and technology. Can we really not imagine a way to redeploy and redistribute these assets and capacities?
The answer lies not in a technological fix, nor, Parenti says is it even an economic problem. It is a political problem – because we don't lack the wealth to tackle climate change (if we don’t tackle it, it will be far more costly). The problem is the distribution of wealth and what that wealth being used for – and that is determined by political decisions.
Parenti calls for a movement for climate justice that can put solutions into the hands of those most affected by the ravages of the catastrophic convergence. He points to the UN Development Program's Global Environment Facility, which distributes small grants to community proposed adaptation and mitigation projects. Only if such a movement is allowed to flourish can we mobilize and liberate the ingenuity and intelligence of people everywhere acting in concert and cooperatively to restore and repair the earth.
About Francesca Rheannon
Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.
This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.
Readers: Can small community movements help sustain our planet? Share on Talkback!