Tag Archives: climate change

Stiglitz On The Environment

Today, I’m largely turning this blog over to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize winning economist who heads up economic research at the Roosevelt Foundation. Stiglitz recently testified before the Senate Budget Committee on what he–and President Biden–have both correctly termed an existential threat: climate change.

The following are excerpts from that testimony.The entire presentation is at the link.

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of my concerns about the large economic costs and huge risks of not taking strong actions now to deal with climate change, and the large benefits of doing so.

Some of the downside risks are already apparent. In one recent year, the magnitude of destruction associated with extreme weather events—which will inevitably occur more frequently, with ever more devastation as a result of climate change—was more than 1.5% of GDP, effectively wiping out more than 60% of the growth of that year.1 But this is only one dimension of what is occurring: Rising sea level will put much coastal property under water, destroying homes and property values. Forward-looking markets have already begun to price this in—but still far from adequately.2 3

Recent studies have documented the adverse effects of climate change on health.4 We pay for this in multiple ways, including higher health care costs and a less healthy population, which means a less productive workforce. But there is no way to accurately monetize the shorter life spans and the increased morbidity….

There are, of course, some sectors, some parts of our population, some locations that will be particularly hard hit. During the past year, we have seen the inequities associated with Covid-19. Those associated with climate change are equally severe, with people at the bottom of the income ladder often bearing the brunt of the costs, with fewer resources to respond. But there is an additional dimension of inequity that speaks to our future: While Covid-19 disproportionately affected older Americans, climate change is a risk that we impose on our children and grandchildren—on the future of our country….

Let me spend a few moments discussing the real risks our economy and society face if we do not take stronger actions than we have so far. We have been treating truly scarce resources, our environment, our water, our air, as if they were free. But economics teaches us that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We will have to pay the check someday. And delay is costly. Taking carbon out of the atmosphere is far more expensive than not putting it into the atmosphere. A smooth transition is far less costly than the one we will surely face if we do not take action urgently….

The longer we delay dealing with climate change, the larger the necessary adjustments will be, and the greater the potential for huge economic disruption—an economic disruption that could make the 2008 Great Recession look like child’s play by comparison.6 The danger of a crash is particularly acute for the U.S. economy, given that large U.S. banks are the largest financiers of fossil fuel….

Economics has, for good reason, been called the dismal science. The scenario of doom and gloom that I have painted is, unfortunately, all too real. But I want to end on a sunnier note. Doing something about climate change could be a real boon for the economy.

Too often, critics of taking action point to the job losses. Change is costly. But change provides opportunity. I am also firmly convinced that the opportunities afforded by addressing climate change are enormous. The number of jobs that will be lost in the old fossil fuel industries are dwarfed by those that will be created in the new industries. The value created in the new industries will also dwarf the value of the stranded assets in the fossil fuel and related sectors. As just two examples: the number of installers of solar panels already is a multiple of the number of coal miners; the auto company with the highest valuation today is Tesla…

The current focus on changing to a green economy is already stimulating enormous innovation, innovation that holds out the promise of significant increases in standards of living. The price of renewable energy has been plummeting, and in many areas outcompetes fossil fuels. The drive for a greener society is stimulating the design of new buildings and new ways of doing agriculture, which turn out actually to save resources, particularly if we value them appropriately….

Our country especially has much to gain, because innovation is a key comparative advantage. If we are ahead of the game—rather than a laggard—we will develop technology that will be in demand around the world. If we are behind the game, we will pay a high price. It is almost inevitable that other countries will demand cross-border adjustments that will put our companies at a disadvantage….

There is much more to be done to protect the economy from the risks I have described. For instance, we need immediately to end fossil fuel subsidies and require full disclosure of climate risks—both the risks of physical damage and the financial risks. Markets on their own don’t provide adequate disclosure, necessary both for the efficient allocation of scarce capital and for protecting investors. We need to change statutes governing fiduciary responsibility to mandate looking at these long-run risks, and especially where government is at risk, as in government insurance pension schemes…

There’s much more at the link, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety.

COVID Is Just The Beginning

Lest yesterday’s semi-optimism distract us…

The Biden Administration will undoubtedly ramp up production and distribution of the COVID vaccines, and most of us are desperate for a return to something approximating “normal.” It is highly unlikely, however, that we will recognize the next decade  or two as even approximating our version of “normal.”

The Brookings Institution has put the most positive possible spin on that reality, advocating for adoption of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The report notes that the pandemic has put a spotlight on global problems like “food insecurity, gender inequity, racism, and biodiversity loss, alongside longstanding gaps in access to education, jobs, and life-saving technologies,” and points out that these are all problems that the Sustainable Development Goals address.

That’s clearly good advice, but it’s probably coming too late.

Pandemics are connected to climate change, and they aren’t even the worst of those consequences. The science deniers, fossil fuel interests and others who have retarded efforts to avoid the worst results of climate change may have doomed humanity, or a substantial portion thereof, to a future somewhere between dismal and dystopian.

Have you noticed the lack of insects the past several years? The absence of bugs that used to smash into our windshields? Fewer mosquitos and fireflies? That’s just the more obvious evidence of a collapse in the global insect population.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

If that isn’t worrisome enough, recent studies suggest that previous warnings of planetary warming may have been understated. Media outlets are reporting that warming is likely to be more severe than previously expected. World temperatures could rise 15 percent more than expected this century. Ice sheets are melting more rapidly than anticipated as well, increasing sea level rise. 

We have already seen a dramatic rise in hurricane strength, wildfires and other results of our environmental heedlessness. Recent studies suggest a far more dangerous future.

Past models have suggested a 2 degree rise in global temperature. That’s bad enough-with a 2 degree rise, sea levels would rise by 1.6 feet, global heatwaves would become common, and subtropical areas would lose a third of their fresh water. Nearly all coral reefs could die. 

Now, studies are suggesting the planet might become 5.3 degrees hotter. That’s 33% higher than most previous estimates–and it would probably mean extinction of the human race on Earth.

According to a recent scientific paper published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne (an independent think tank),

Climate change poses a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization,” and there’s a good chance society could collapse as soon as 2050 if serious mitigation actions aren’t taken in the next decade…

What might an accurate worst-case picture of the planet’s climate-addled future actually look like, then? The authors provide one particularly grim scenario that begins with world governments “politely ignoring” the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy (finding alternative energy sources), resulting in a global temperature increase 5.4 F (3 C) by the year 2050. At this point, the world’s ice sheets vanish; brutal droughts kill many of the trees in the Amazon rainforest (removing one of the world’s largest carbon offsets); and the planet plunges into a feedback loop of ever-hotter, ever-deadlier conditions.

 “Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability,” the authors hypothesized.

Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires regularly ravage the land. Nearly one-third of the world’s land surface turns to desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, beginning with the planet’s coral reefs, the rainforest and the Arctic ice sheets. The world’s tropics are hit hardest by these new climate extremes, destroying the region’s agriculture and turning more than 1 billion people into refugees.

Meanwhile, last year, 150 members of Congress—all Republicans—rejected the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

Apparently, humans will continue to fiddle while the Earth burns….

 

 

Denying Reality, Subsidizing Our Own Destruction

Warnings about climate change began years ago, with predictions of devastating fires, more powerful hurricanes, rising oceans and millions of global migrants.

What’s that line from “bring in the clowns?” Oh yes–“Don’t bother, they’re here.”

The Idiot-in-Chief may dismiss science, may attribute the fires burning much of west coast America to “forest management” (not to get picky, but the federal government is responsible for managing something like 70% of California’s forests), but people who actually know what they are talking about uniformly connect the extent and severity of those conflagrations to climate change.

 How many Americans will be displaced by climate change–not sometime in the future, but soon? The New York Times recently focused on the probability that massive population movement will change the country. Abrahm Lustgarten, the author, explained how he came to the issue:

I had an unusual perspective on the matter. For two years, I have been studying how climate change will influence global migration. My sense was that of all the devastating consequences of a warming planet — changing landscapes, pandemics, mass extinctions — the potential movement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees across the planet stands to be among the most important. I traveled across four countries to witness how rising temperatures were driving climate refugees away from some of the poorest and hottest parts of the world. I had also helped create an enormous computer simulation to analyze how global demographics might shift, and now I was working on a data-mapping project about migration here in the United States.

Noting the obvious, Lustgarten points out that Americans have largely avoided confronting these issues, thanks to politicians who play down climate risks, support continuing the enormous subsidies to fossil fuels and support “other incentives aimed at defying nature.” By “defying nature,” he means Americans’ longstanding preference for settling in areas most vulnerable to environmental danger– coastlines from New Jersey to Florida and the deserts of the Southwest.

The article is lengthy, and the statistics and other data are well worth your time to click through and consider. Lustgarten cites studies predicting that one in 12 Americans who currently live in the U.S. South will move toward California, the Mountain West or the Northwest over the next 45 years. A population shift of that magnitude will increase poverty and income inequality,  accelerate urbanization of cities ill-equipped for the burden, and will deal “repeated economic blows to coastal, rural and Southern regions.”

As he points out, this negative spiral has already begun in rural Louisiana and coastal Georgia.

Meanwhile, the bad climate news keeps coming. 

In New Mexico, the mass death of birds has puzzled–and spooked– scientists.

Professor Martha Desmond of the college’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology expressed deep concern about what the sudden deaths of these birds portends for the environment.

“It is terribly frightening,” Desmond told the Sun News. “We’ve never seen anything like this. … We’re losing probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of migratory birds.”

In Antartica, two major glaciers are in the process of breaking off. According to The Washington Post

Two Antarctic glaciers that have long kept scientists awake at night are breaking free from the restraints that have hemmed them in, increasing the threat of large-scale sea-level rise.

In a recent column, Eugene Robinson pointed out that the fires burning on the West Coast are only one of a number of threats generated by our changing climate: 

For only the second time on record, five tropical cyclones are swirling in the Atlantic Ocean at the same time — including Hurricane Sally, which is gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico and aiming at vulnerable New Orleans and Mississippi.

These catastrophes horribly illustrate the stakes in the coming election: at risk is the future of our beautiful, fragile planet. The choice facing voters who care about that future could not be more stark. Democratic nominee Joe Biden accepts the scientific consensus about climate change and wants the United States to lead the world in a transition to clean energy. President Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and encouraged greater production and burning of “beautiful, clean coal.”

Along with all the other reasons to vote “Blue No Matter Who,” Robinson reminds us that a vote for Trump is a vote for ignorance and environmental ruin, while a vote for Biden (who has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement immediately if he is elected) is a vote for Planet Earth.

There’s a reason Scientific American–which has never endorsed a candidate in its 175-year history–has endorsed Joe Biden. You would think that anyone who is genuinely “pro life” (and not just pro-birth/ anti-woman) would vote for an environment capable of supporting human life. 

 

Money And The Planet

We’re at a time of the year and election cycle when news about the political campaigns tends to drown out other important or newsworthy developments. Policy arguments, particularly, take a back seat to “breaking news” about the latest evidence or eruption of Trump’s mental illness and general despicableness–like the taped confession that he knew in February how contagious and dangerous the COVID-19 virus was.

So I’ve seen very little about an important effort to counter climate change being made by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Late last month, The Guardian reported on a three-part plan that aims to expose and counter the fossil fuel industry’s well-funded efforts to conceal the scale of the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats are set to release a 200-page plan arguing that significant US climate action will require stripping the fossil fuel industry of its influence over the government and the public’s understanding of the crisis.

“It’s important for the public to understand that this is not a failure of American democracy that’s causing this,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Senate Democrat from Rhode Island. “It is a very specific and successful attack on American democracy by an industry with truly massive financial motivation to corrupt democratic institutions.

A report titled Dark Money has laid out in detail just how “giant fossil fuel corporations have spent billions – much of it anonymized through scores of front groups – during a decades-long campaign to attack climate science and obstruct climate action”.

It isn’t as though the media hasn’t reported on this web of disinformation. Environmental groups have brought lawsuits that have exposed the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to conceal the scale of the problem and its use of dark money groups to slow a shift away from fossil fuels. But as Whitehouse points out, the story has yet to reach the American public.

In an indication of how interrelated our current problems are, and the extent to which campaign finance permissiveness has affected policymaking, the report blames the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed industries to spend virtually unlimited sums of money to sway elections.

The elements of the three-part plan are:

“Expose the role of the fossil fuel billionaires, executives and corporations in funding and organizing the groups trafficking in climate denial and obstruction.”

“Reform federal laws and regulations to require greater transparency and reduce the influence of money, particularly dark money, in politics.”

“Alert industries that support climate action to the depth, nature and success of the covert fossil fuel political scheme.”

The article points out that climate change–like so much else in our polarized political world–has become a defining feature of partisanship.

Republicans meanwhile are split on the climate issue, with some outright denying the science, many questioning the severity of the crisis, and a growing minority pitching technologies for capturing emissions from fossil fuels so they can continue to be used. Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and rescinded essentially all of the federal government’s biggest climate efforts.

The article noted that fossil fuel companies knew the severity of the climate crisis as early as the late 1970s, and are only now–reluctantly–confronting it. Whitehouse pins the success of their intervening efforts to mislead and misdirect directly on Ciitizens United.

Whitehouse was elected to the Senate in 2006, and he said everything changed immediately after the supreme court issued the Citizens United ruling in 2010. “There’s a very clear before and after,” he said.

“I don’t think Americans understand enough the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has weaponized a whole variety of systems and laws that now competes with the government itself for dominance,” Whitehouse said.

A final note: The United States is scheduled to exit the Paris Climate Agreement on November 4th.

 

 

Climate Denial Coming Back To Bite Us

It’s all connected.

Not just climate change and the incidence of pandemics–which, it turns out, is a connection we need to understand and take seriously–but science denial and destructive public policies, among many other relationships.

As Talking Points Memo and Pro Publica have reported, scientists and medical researchers are just beginning to unravel the ways in which climate change affects the emergence of new diseases. It isn’t as though the relationship between the two was unknown; for many years now, experts in the field have been warning about the likelihood that a warming planet would accelerate the rate at which new diseases appear. But the mechanisms are just beginning to be understood.

The numbers are jaw-dropping: A new emerging disease surfaces five times a year. One study estimates that more than 3,200 strains of coronaviruses already exist among bats, just waiting for an opportunity to jump to people.

Those strains have always been there–but the planet previously had “natural defenses” that fought them off.

Today, climate warming is demolishing those defense systems, driving a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that, when coupled with reckless deforestation and aggressive conversion of wildland for economic development, pushes farms and people closer to the wild and opens the gates for the spread of disease.

The effect of climate change on the way diseases are transmitted from bats and other animals or insects to humans is anything but intuitive, which is why it would be helpful to elect legislators and other policymakers who have a modicum of scientific literacy. (Actually, it would be nice if at least a few GOP lawmakers knew the difference between science and religion…)

The article explains how it works.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

Not only does climate change facilitate contagion, but once new diseases are introduced into the human environment, changing temperatures and precipitation change how–and how fast– those diseases spread. Harsh swings from hot to cold, or sudden storms — exactly the kinds of climate-change-induced patterns we’re already experiencing— make people more likely to get sick.

The bottom line: climate policy is inseparable from efforts to prevent new pandemics. The relationship of the two cannot be ignored.

What’s known as biodiversity is critical because the natural variety of plants and animals lends each species greater resiliency against threat and together offers a delicately balanced safety net for natural systems. As diversity wanes, the balance is upset, and remaining species are both more vulnerable to human influences and, according to a landmark 2010 study in the journal Nature, more likely to pass along powerful pathogens.

Losses of biodiversity have accelerated. Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact–the others have been so degraded that the natural ecosystems that depend on them have been disrupted. When forests die, and grasslands and wetlands are destroyed, biodiversity decreases further.

The United Nations has warned that the planet has already lost 20% of all species– and that more than a million more animal and plant species currently face extinction.

Speaking of interrelationships–politics is intimately and unavoidably involved with our efforts to avoid planetary-wide extinctions. Losses of biodiversity and the increasing prevalence of pandemics cannot be addressed by MAGA-believing xenophobes who fear globalization and dark people, and think border walls will repel viruses and brown people, and return America to the 1950s.

We are facing life-and-death issues, and they can only be resolved by global collaborations led by people who respect science and trust scientists–and aren’t afraid of people who look or pray differently.