While a breathless nation watched natural redhead Lindsay Lohan try to adjust to jail and the most prestigious organ of the American press prominently lamented the failure to regulate Froot Loops, your world and the world for your children and grandchildren changed last week. Reported grudgingly if at all in most of "the media": The death of legislation that would even begin to address climate change. Others have commented on the shameful retreat by the Democratic Congress and White House, and even Tom Friedman had a good column. It included the pungent observation:
We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gases into Mother Nature’s operating system and take our chances that the results will be benign — even though a vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so. Fasten your seat belts. As the environmentalist Rob Watson likes to say: “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000,” says Watson. Do not mess with Mother Nature. But that is just what we’re doing.
I'd like to explore the future we're making by our own choice.
Any thinking conservative, and a few remain even if they must mask their intellect from the arrogant-ignorant Palin brownshirts, knows that climate change is real and human caused. All I can guess is they assume we'll muddle through and market forces will do a better job at managing climate change than would the government. After all, unintended consequences always come from state interference in the economy. The costs of really tackling greenhouse gases would be substantial, especially during a recession and its fragile aftermath. And any economic event, even one as tectonic as this, will produce winners as well as losers. The Arctic Sea will open for year-round navigation and exploration of resources. The growing season will expand in the northern United States. Otherwise, human beings and human systems will adapt as they always have, especially if the market's flawless price signals are unimpaired by government regulation. So what's the collateral damage of a massive die-off among poor, brown people? "Stuff happens," as Donald Rumsfeld said of the Iraqi looting that destroyed America's chance to stabilize that nation
Then we have the tenets of the oligarchy that owns the commanding heights of the economy and indeed the federal government. It is not quite fascism, as some liberals and the handful on the genuine left would have it, because we haven't yet descended into full-blown totalitarianism. But its power is undeniable and growing. It is the huge transnational corporations; the "financial services" sector; big coal and the utilities; the oil-auto-housebuilding axis; most of the very wealthy, and the very well-funded rightwing infrastructure. Except for the latter, this group is pragmatic after its fashion. It wants quick profits however it gets them. For much of three decades it has extracted them partly by holding a rummage sale on the productive wealth it took Americans a century to create (e.g. through mergers and industry consolidation, wage stagnation, slashing benefits, offshoring of jobs, etc. and now even deeper cuts to gain short-term profits). It built a financial Doomsday Machine that has pretty much destroyed the American economy as we knew it. It has captured not only regulators but the Congress and the Obama administration. The oligarchy, too, is not totally clueless, whatever propaganda it pays "think tanks" to spew like the Gulf oil spill. So what is it "thinking"? Next quarter. Immediate profits. We're rich so we'll be fine whatever happens. And we'll profit from whatever world emerges in the decades to come.
I'm trying to understand because in a nation skewed so far to the right and whose democracy has been so undermined by the oligarchy, these mindsets are worth probing. And I'm not underestimating the power of groupthink, intellectual fraud and denial, techno-fantasy, the inability to comprehend the calamity we're facing or imagine something different from that "non-negotiable" lifestyle — even among the elite. But more of them "get" climate change than one might think. Now that they've won a battle never really joined (cap-and-trade? That's the best you can do?), we will be forced to live with their assumptions.
It's quite a gamble.
If they're right, we face several challenges anyway. One cuts to the heart of white-right emotion: A huge wave of immigration into the United States as the "loser" nations to the south can't grow crops and lack the money and infrastructure to air condition their societies. (A similar issue will confront Europe from Africa). Another is greater international instability as nations confront one another over not only oil but also water and migration. Little currency has been given to studies about the costs of inaction on climate and continuing rising temperatures/disruptive weather. Thus we don't really know that the price of aggressive efforts to stop greenhouse gases would be less than a future where many pillars of globalization and world markets are in chaos. Or how much real action might have added to the economic balance (building high-speed rail, retrofitting suburbia to be less car dependent, green tech research and industries, etc.).
Even if they're right, the American South and Southwest face a dismal future as part of these winner/loser tradeoffs. It's difficult to imagine how these regions built on air conditioning in an era of cheap energy prices can afford to sustain even their current population in the decades ahead. Pure-tee market forces mean these poorer (especially after the Great Recession) areas simply won't be able to afford AC for nine months a year or more. Water will be a huge and growing issue for places such as Arizona as climate change reduces snow melt. Then there's the migration of tropical diseases north as temperatures warm. One small-scale personal observation concerns the emergence of West Nile virus in Phoenix: Before the man-made heat island, we had hard frosts in the Salt River Valley, so mosquitoes were not a big deal. Washington state is already worried about "climate refugees" from the Southwest in the decades ahead.
Even if they're right, we'll lose much of the American West as we knew it, with massive extinctions of animal and plant species ("Stuff happens"). This won't be a mere matter of nostalgia or aesthetics. Entire ecosystems will be altered in unpredictable ways. Yes, there are unintended consequences even when one relies on the "free market." The forests of Arizona's High Country and elsewhere are already being badly damaged by a heat-related infestation. Will the delicate and unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert survive sustained higher heat and less rainfall? Will 2040 be a year when people can only see these majestic works of God in photos or some new video distraction?
And if they're right, the American market is doing a lousy job. China, a huge part of the climate-change problem but still not as bad an actor as the United States, is moving quickly to prepare for this future of discontinuity. It is spending $100 million this year alone to build high-speed rail. It has declared renewable energy a strategic industry, where it is applying protectionist measures to try to corner the world market in such areas as solar energy. It is building relationships around the globe to sustain its oil habit until it (by state diktat) weans itself off. China has the edge on rare earth minerals used in such things as electric-powered cars. America is trying to weatherize some houses, while plowing its treasure into sustaining the unsustainable, from sprawl to wars.
If they're wrong, even by a bit, the future is going to be much more costly, more harsh, more dangerous.
These people built the financial Doomsday Machine, which is not nearly finished with its destruction. Now they've built another. We the People let them do it. The future will curse us.