It was a quiet year for tornadoes — until last week, that is. A string of twisters have ravaged the middle of the country over the past several days, culminating in a two-mile-wide tornado tearing up Moore, Okla., this afternoon. So far at least 37 people have been confirmed dead in Oklahoma, and that toll is expected to rise.
The weather has twisted a few of our fellow greenies on the internet into a tizzy. “Extreme storm, climate change, OMFG!” they cry. We almost had a seizure reading this missive from the Wonkette folks, and we’re fairly sure they had one while writing it.
Wishing the best for tornado victims in OK. Hope this sells at least a few on consequences and importance of climate change.
But the science on tornadoes and climate change isn’t clear enough to OMFG about it just yet. As Grist’s John Upton reported recently, the number of twisters has been roller-coastering up and down from year to year. “It certainly feels like one of those boom-bust weather cycles that we expect from climate change. But there doesn’t appear to be any evidence directly linking the recent tornado cycle to global warming.”
Post-Superstorm Sandy, we’ve entered a kind of fugue state when it comes to natural disaster, forgetting that there has been a long history of extreme weather events that sometimes have nothing to do with how much carbon is in our atmosphere. For as disastrous as Sandy was, be honest: You relished pointing out that climate change connection.
Maybe scientists will conclude that this really is the fault of that atmospheric carbon. Maybe they won’t! For now, at least, the only thing I’ll be blaming for this mess is Sarah Palin. Because, you know.
Pack up your temperature sensors, your climate-modeling supercomputers, your tree and ice core sample equipment. Sarah Palin has spoken on climate change, and she says it’s snowing in Alaska, ergo “global warming my gluteus maximus,” Q.E.D. And you know it’s science because she used the Latin word for “ass.”
Prescient Palin only ever backs winning horses like John McCain, Bristol and Levi’s marriage, and her own gubernatorial career, so if she says climate science is a non-starter then by god, we’re just going to throw in the towel. At least until we can get Obama to take inspiration from this completely real and not made up British law:
I suppose if anyone could inspire him to criminalize this kind of idiocy, it’s La Palin.
The slow-moving disaster being visited on the village of Newtok is a familiar one in Alaska. People are losing the ground beneath their feet, because of erosion.
Climate change has accelerated the normal process of erosion along Alaska’s rivers and coasts — especially near the shores of the Bering and Arctic seas.
Warmer temperatures melt the permafrost, or frozen sub-surface layers which helped bind together the soil. Heavier rains produce more floods, and swollen rivers which wash away the soil. Waves break higher, because of sea-level rise, clawing at beaches.
Meanwhile, the sea ice that provided a barrier against intense storms has thinned and retreated, exposing coastal areas to tsunami-sized waves and 100 mph winds that are not uncommon in storms coming off the Bering Sea.
Alaskans have already begun exploring how to find the way back to solid ground. Some small communities may be able to reinforce coastlines by building broad, sloping rock walls known as revetments. But bringing heavy equipment, building materials and skilled labour to remote locations is prohibitively expensive — three or four times more than a comparable project anywhere else. The construction season is also short, further adding to the cost.
“Coastal erosion is a really, really expensive problem to deal with in an engineering mode,” said Orson Smith, an engineering professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “It costs $10,000 to build one linear foot on a shoreline in a remote area, and you have thousands and thousands of feet of shoreline.”
Then there’s the matter of how the structures would stand up to the harsh Alaskan environment.
Shishmaref, a native Alaskan village located on a barrier island, has gone through an entire array of engineering projects — concrete blocks, wire mesh baskets, a broad sea wall made or gravel and rock. “A museum of erosion control,” Smith said.
Some of the early versions failed on deployment, and it’s not clear how the other structures will stand up over the years.
It’s also far from clear where Alaska will get the money for such ambitious engineering works, especially for small and remote communities.
Climate change is already adding billions to the bill every year just for maintaining existing infrastructure. A state government report estimated that erosion, flooding and other effects of climate change would add up to 20 percent to those costs over the next 20 years.
Then there is the issue of assigning priorities. About 90 percent of Alaska’s population lives within 20 kilometers of a coast, and the state’s most valuable resources — oil, fishing, minerals — are also in close proximity.
“There just isn’t enough money to go around to build a $50 or $100 million revetment for a village of a few hundred people that has other problems,” Smith said. “The money that is spent on those kinds of structures to save a village could be applied to move the families to somewhere else.”
There are other remedies for villages that want to protect against erosion. Communities are now looking at how to plan for a slow retreat to higher ground, gradually replacing old buildings by new raised structures, or moving buildings to higher elevations. But many communities have no higher ground or room to retreat.
Others, like Newtok, are situated on low-lying, wetlands that simply can not support the large engineering projects that would be needed to make them safe. They have no choice but to move.
“Hello, world? Hey, John Kerry here. Just wanted to apologize for all those decades of America’s non-leadership on that crazy global warming thing. But now we’ve decided to start making some nice sounds about the issue. Hope you can hear me making them over the din of the Arctic ice breaking up behind me.”
OK, so the Secretary of State didn’t actually say that. But the leader of the department that will rule on the climate-changing Keystone XL pipeline proposal has begun apologizing for the nation’s lack of progress in tackling climate change.
“I regret that my own country — and President Obama knows this and is committed to changing it — needs to do more and we are committed to doing more,” Kerry said Tuesday, referring to climate change, in a press conference with Sweden’s prime minister.
Kerry is in Sweden to attend meetings in the country’s northernmost city of Kiruna of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments that have a stake in the fate of the fast-melting region. As the Arctic melts, new shipping routes and oil fields are opening up, and the international community is going to need to coordinate and temper the scramble to cash in on these new opportunities.
“We come here to Kiruna with a great understanding of the challenge to the Arctic as the ice melts, as the ecosystem is challenged, the fisheries, and the possibilities of increased commercial traffic as a result of the lack of ice raises a whole set of other issues that we need to face up to,” Kerry said during the press conference. “So it’s not just an environmental issue and it’s not just an economic issue. It is a security issue, a fundamental security issue that affects life as we know it on the planet itself, and it demands urgent attention from all of us.”
The Obama administration on Friday released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF]. The strategy pledges to “enable our vessels and aircraft to operate … through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce … and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities.” All done sustainably and in harmony with other nations, of course. But the 11-page document is not so much a detailed strategy document as it is a vague wish-list for the future of the region, and no federal funds have been committed to turn the strategy’s goals into reality.
That said, the attention that the U.S. is affording the Arctic Council is politically significant. From the BBC:
Mr. Kerry, who held one of the first US Senate hearings on climate change as early as 1988 with then-Senator Al Gore, is hoping to put the spotlight on the issue of climate change again, after efforts to make concrete progress faltered during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Despite a multitude of international crises, Mr. Kerry insisted on attending the meeting of the once-obscure council.
Climate change has countries as far away as India also paying attention to the Arctic — and seeking observer status in the council.
What the Arctic most needs, of course, is a fast and deep cut in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Actions leading to that — like, say, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline — will carry more weight than press-conference words.
The National Journal has a long piece out, “The Coming GOP Civil War Over Climate Change: Science, storms, and demographics are starting to change minds among the rank and file.”
Back in October 2010, NJran an article explaining, “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.”
Now reality is biting back, or, perhaps more accurately, nibbling back. The new piece begins with MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel, a registered Republican since 1973. He switched his registration to “independent” shortly after a not-so-successful meeting with Republican presidential candidates in the run up to South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary, a meeting arranged by the influential Charleston-based Christian Coalition of America:
“The idea that you could look a huge amount of evidence straight in the face and, for purely ideological reasons, deny it, is anathema to me,” [Emanuel] says.
Emanuel predicts that many more voters like him, people who think of themselves as conservative or independent but are turned off by what they see as a willful denial of science and facts, will also abandon the GOP, unless the party comes to an honest reckoning about global warming.
Certainly recent polls (see here) make clear climate change is a political winner. It is a classic wedge issue that divides Tea Party extremists from independents and moderate/liberal Republicans. NJ explains:
The problem is, as polling data and the changing demographics of the American electorate show, it’s likely that the position that can win voters in a primary will lose voters in a general election. Some day, though, the facts — both scientific and demographic — will force GOP candidates to confront climate change whether they want to or not. And that day will come sooner than they think. …
“These polls show that there are a lot of people who are inclined to vote Republican — and believe America should respond to climate change,” says Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason program. “Republicans aren’t inclined to respond to it right now, but in the future, if they don’t take these issues seriously, they’re inclined to alienate a lot of Republican voters.”
As one of the leading experts on public opinion analysis in this area, Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, explained back in October, candidates “may actually enhance turnout as well as attract voters over to their side by discussing climate change.”
Some Republicans have started to figure this out, but that means taking on the Tea Party extremists and their well-funded pollutocrat backers like the Kochs:
And a quiet, but growing, number of other Republicans fear the same thing. Already, deep fissures are emerging between, on one side, a base of ideological voters and lawmakers with strong ties to powerful tea-party groups and super PACs funded by the fossil-fuel industry who see climate change as a false threat concocted by liberals to justify greater government control; and on the other side, a quiet group of moderates, younger voters, and leading conservative intellectuals who fear that if Republicans continue to dismiss or deny climate change, the party will become irrelevant.
“There is a divide within the party,” says Samuel Thernstrom, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality and is now a scholar of environmental policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “The position that climate change is a hoax is untenable.”
A concerted push has begun within the party — in conservative think tanks and grassroots groups, and even in backroom, off-the-record conversations on Capitol Hill — to persuade Republicans to acknowledge and address climate change in their own terms. The effort will surely add heat to the deep internal conflict in the years ahead. [emphasis added]
The National Journal says some of the fossil fuel companies backing the right-wing deniers are changing their position:
It’s long been taken as a truism that the powerful oil lobby is the reason nothing happens on climate change in Washington. For many years, that was indeed true. In particular, Exxon Mobil, the nation’s largest oil company and a major contributor to Republican candidates, was associated with a campaign to fuel skepticism about climate science. From 1998 to 2006, Exxon Mobil contributed more than $600,000 to the Heartland Institute, a well-known nonprofit group that holds conferences and publishes books aimed at debunking the science of climate change. Exxon Mobil’s support of Heartland made sense. The oil company stood to take a financial hit from “cap-and-trade” climate-change proposals that would have priced carbon pollution from oil.
For a number of reasons, that equation is changing. Exxon Mobil has ended its support of Heartland’s agenda. It’s not that the oil giant has had a green awakening; it’s just that a series of internal changes have positioned the company to profit from at least some policies that price carbon emissions. …
And the position on climate change at Exxon Mobil that once helped fund the Heartland conferences? “We have the same concerns about climate change as everyone. The risk of climate change exists; it’s caused by more carbon in the atmosphere; the risk is growing; and there’s broad scientific and policy consensus on this,” [company spokesman Alan] Jeffers says.
But even if Exxon Mobil were truly softening on the issue, which is a dubious proposition at best, the hardcore polluters have simply upped the ante.
After quoting Marco Rubio’s recent denialist statements — such as “When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, [Obama] accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air” — NJ explains:
Rubio’s view is likely to remain the mainstream one in the party in the short term, thanks to tea-party groups such as Americans for Prosperity, a super PAC founded by David and Charles Koch, the principal owners of Koch Industries, a major U.S. oil conglomerate.
Over the last several years, Americans for Prosperity has spearheaded an all-fronts campaign using advertising, social media, and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who will ensure that the fossil-fuel industry won’t have to worry about any new regulations. The group spent $36 million to influence the 2012 elections.
“We’ve been having this debate with the Left for 10 years, and we welcome having the debate with these new groups. If there are groups who want to do a niche effort with the Republican electorate, we’ll win that debate,” says the group’s president, Tim Phillips. He’s not worried that organizations such as Combs’s Christian Coalition or economists such as Laffer will influence lawmakers — because AFP would hit any such candidate with an all-out negative campaign. “Let them bring a carbon tax on. They know it’s political death for them to bring this forward on their own.”
So right now there is mostly a standoff for the GOP. The deniers can dominate the primaries with voters and fossil-fuel funding for the time being, but that denial hurts them in many statewide and national elections.
Ask Dr. Andrew Guzman, a professor of international law at U.C. Berkely, why he decided to write a book about climate change, and he says it’s simple: It’s the biggest issue of our time.
“If I didn’t write about it,” he says, “for my grandkids, I’d sound like somebody who wasn’t interested in Nazi Germany in 1939.”
Gutzman doesn’t want to be painted as an alarmist. That’s why, for the book, Overheated: The human costs of climate change, he assumes that we will see a modest (and increasingly optimistic) 2 degrees centigrade of warming. You know, so as to stay on the conservative side of things.
But it turns out that 2 degrees is enough to sound some serious fucking alarm bells.
Guzman’s main goal, he says, was to look at the social, economic, and political costs of global warming. Most books focus on physical and environmental changes. Guzman wanted to examine human consequences.
Guzman spends a significant portion of Overheated exploring how troubled parts of the world will be affected by food and water scarcity vis-à-vis climate change. But some of the scarier parts of the book are about the overabundance of water that’s coming our way: Two degrees warming probably equates to about a one meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees.
“I think the question is whether the exit will be orderly or emergency crisis,” Guzman says. “If a storm comes at the wrong time and the international community is then plucking these people out of the sea, it’ll be horrible.”
The environmental refugee problem becomes eye-poppingly scary when you look at the 150 million people living in Bangladesh. A one-meter sea level rise would swamp about 17 percent of the country.
“We know where people go when they lose their land: They go to cities, and they go to refugee camps,” Guzman says. “So the Bangladeshi cities that remain are going to be overrun and crumbling. Just think of the sewage system alone.”
Lest you think no one has considered what might happen next, in recent years India has increased security along the border with Bangladesh. “But fences are only so good up to a point,” Guzman says. “So how much violence are you prepared to use to keep that border secure? It’s not at all clear to me that the border can remain in tact.”
Global warming is often couched as an environmental problem, but for Guzman, this misses the point. He’s skeptical that drowning polar bears and acidified coral reefs will mobilize the public into action. He’s a realist appealing to self-interested Americans. This isn’t about hugging trees and saving whales. This is about international security, global pandemics, terrorism — and a moral imperative.
Overheated is a fascinating read in part because Guzman goes out of his way not to be hyperbolic. But if you buy his book as you’re boarding a plane, it’s more likely than not that you’ll land feeling alarmed.
Listen in as I talk to Guzman about how he got involved with this topic, the chances that we’ll be able to avert disaster — and what we’re in for, as a species, if we fail to react in time.
This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.
The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should “hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.” For there to be a chance — even just a 50/50 chance — of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.
Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.
That metaphor gets used a lot. I’ve used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There’s been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?
The papers, which are focused mostly on the U.S. but meant to draw lessons applicable to other countries as well, “commence the process of developing contingency plans for a scenario in which a sudden major global climate impact galvanises governments to implement emergency climate mitigation targets and programs.”
Let’s pause right here for a second. This entire project is premised on the notion that harsh climate impacts will eventually spur the public to demand emergency action from governments. That is, to put it mildly, a debatable premise. I’ve always thought people put way too much faith in it. It’s really, really difficult to know what kind of impact would be big or frequent enough to spur that kind of public unity, especially directed at climate change mitigation (as opposed to adaptation). After all, no one will be able to prevent climate disasters within their lifetime through mitigation — the next 50 years of climate change are already “baked in.” So we’re talking about the peoples of the U.S. and the world rallying around emergency measures, wartime sacrifices, on behalf of future generations. I can easily imagine that never happening. And if it does, it’s going to take some kind of shock that I can’t even really imagine.
Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that politicians will resist adopting a true emergency posture:
Since rapid climate mitigation responses on the scale and scope of warlike mobilisation mean that governments may have to turn away from business-as-usual and predominantly market solutions to place more emphasis on centrally organised and publicly funded activities, politicians are less likely to support emergency climate actions for the fear of losing corporate support and, in countries with large fossil fuel reserves, tax revenues.
Uh, ya think?
Because of political resistance, moving to a wartime-mobilization footing will require serious grassroots pressure:
Unless the climate action movement can exert strong, growing pressure on governments, by means of lobbying backed up with media, public education, legal actions, building alternatives and nonviolent direct action, it seems unlikely that governments will undertake emergency mitigation, even when life-threatening climate disasters occur.
But anyway. For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine such disasters did unfold and there was enough grassroots pressure to force politicians into wartime posture. What would that look like? How would it work?
Delina and Diesendorf take a close look at America’s experience during WWII. (It’s worth digging into the first paper’s section on that topic — there’s lots I didn’t know about the government’s domestic policy during that period.) During that time, the country went from manufacturing almost no war material to manufacturing enough of it to run the world’s biggest military. It was an industrial turnaround of astonishing speed and scale.
The lessons that emerge from that period aren’t ones I’m particularly comfortable with, and it sounds like the authors aren’t totally thrilled with them either. Long story short, what’s required in wartime mobilization is an enormous amount of centralized federal executive authority, an enormous amount of borrowing and taxing, and an enormous amount of labor displacement and retraining. At least temporarily, the economy will be more government-directed than market-based.
Among other things, pulling that off will require some sort of large-scale strategy, a set of goals and programs, that is durable enough to be insulated from the ebb and flow of passing administrations and changes in public opinion. It must be focused on long-term mitigation rather than merely immediate adaptation (which is what all the short-term political pressure will favor). At the same time, however, the mitigation strategy can’t be so rigid that it is immune to public oversight and control. Some measure of democratic control must be preserved.
Delina and Diesendorf recommend the statutory creation of two new institutions in particular:
• A special Ministry for Transition to a Low-Carbon Future as the principal agency of rapid mitigation activities to conduct technical requirement studies, set and enforce production goals [for renewable energy technologies], institute efficient contracting procedures, cut through the inertia and ‘red tape’ inhibiting institutional changes, and serve as the coordinating agency for all transition activities.
• A separate institution, independent of the Executive and the above Ministry, reporting directly to Parliament/Congress and the community at large, to prepare a transition timeline specifying the period when executive control starts and ends; to conduct appropriate checks and balances; to scrutinise government/executive actions, especially those of the Ministry for Transition; and, through legal powers, to ensure that the government/executive sticks to its transition mandate.
So it’s your basic balance-of-powers set-up: a single coordinating agency and a watchdog to keep it honest. The delicate dance here is to hand over extraordinary power to the executive branch on the premise that it can and will be handed back after a set period of time.
Among the many dangers in this approach is that executives are not generally inclined to give up power once it’s been granted them. And it’s not like the climate situation will be any less dire in 10 years, or 20. Once you switch over to wartime government in the face of a foe that cannot surrender and never stops, how do you ever switch back? (The parallels to the “war on terrorism” should be obvious here.)
Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that the WWII mobilization comparison is not perfect, because climate mobilization will be even more difficult and more complicated. (Whee!) It will also involve state and provincial governments, along with civic and private institutions. It will also, crucially, involve international coordination and enforcement. It will eventually have to go beyond particular economic sectors and address the larger issues of population and consumption. “Getting all these acts done in a coordinated and democratic/participatory manner,” Delina and Diesendorf write, “is definitely a huge challenge.”
You could say that.
So. Assuming that the climate movement can tie climate impacts together enough to galvanize the public against climate change; assuming politicians can actually be swayed by public pressure into radical, immediate action; assuming that executive power can be expanded and the economy transformed as though it were 1942; assuming that, at the end of the sprint to zero carbon, the federal government cedes back the extraordinary and democratically suspect powers it adopted … well, assuming all that, we’ve got this climate governance thing nailed! Yeeesh.
One final note about this. A political conservative will see this post and think, “Aha! I knew it all along! Liberals are using climate change as a pretense to grow government and increase its power over our lives!”
As an assessment of the motivations and ideology of those fighting against climate change, this is absurd, of course. But as an assessment of what must be done to secure real climate safety, it is accurate. In any scenario where mitigation is big enough and fast enough, government really will need to be bigger and more intrusive. That is very much worth worrying about; getting through this ordeal while retaining the open, democratic character of U.S. government (such as it is, anyway) will be a tough needle to thread.
However, it’s worth noting that eschewing mitigation and instead trying to adapt to a 4°C world will create widespread suffering, migration, and desperation. Those, in turn, will lead to civil unrest and resource conflicts. Guess what governments do in the face of massive disruptions and unrest? They get bigger and more authoritarian!
There’s no libertarian choice here. A huge, global challenge like climate change is inevitably going to mean more government action and intrusion. The choice is, do you want managed big government, with a bounded set of plans and some amount of oversight built in, or do you want panicked big government, responding to migrations, famines, and conflict? I’m not exactly excited about either choice, but the former definitely strikes me as the lesser of two evils.
Ryan will be the first to tell you that he’s not a video production guru. He’s an amateur, figuring stuff out on the fly. He just feels like he needs to be doing something, so he’s doing something. Would that there were more like him.
Cities where small, locally owned businesses account for a relatively large share of the economy have stronger social networks, more engaged citizens, and better success solving problems, according to several recently published studies.
And in the face of climate change, those are just the sort of traits that communities most need if they are to survive massive storms, adapt to changing conditions, find new ways of living more lightly on the planet, and, most important, nurture a vigorous citizenship that can drive major changes in policy.
That there’s a connection between the ownership structure of our economy and the vitality of our democracy may sound a bit odd to modern ears. But this was an article of faith among 18th- and 19th-century Americans, who strictly limited the lifespan of corporations and enacted antitrust laws whose express aim was to protect democracy by maintaining an economy of small businesses.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that this tenet of American political thought was fully superseded by the consumer-focused, bigger-is-better ideology that now dominates our economic policy-making. Ironically, the shift happened just as social scientists were furnishing the first bona fide empirical evidence linking economic scale to civic engagement.
In 1946, Walter Goldschmidt, a USDA sociologist, produced a groundbreaking study comparing two farming towns in California that were almost identical in every respect but one: Dinuba’s economy was composed mainly of family farms, while Arvin’s was dominated by large agribusinesses. Goldschmidt found that Dinuba had a richer civic life, with twice the number of community organizations, twice the number of newspapers, and citizens who were much more engaged than those in Arvin. Not surprisingly, Dinuba also had far superior public infrastructure: In both quality and quantity, the town’s schools, parks, sidewalks, paved streets, and garbage services far surpassed those of Arvin.
At about the same time, two other sociologists, C. Wright Mills and Melville J. Ulmer, were undertaking a similar study of several pairs of manufacturing cities in the Midwest. Their research, conducted on behalf of a congressional committee, found that communities comprised primarily of small, locally owned businesses took much better care of themselves. They beat cities dominated by large, absentee-owned firms on more than 30 measures of well-being, including such things as literacy, acreage of public parks, extent of poverty, and the share of residents who belonged to civic organizations.
One might expect such findings to have had a powerful influence on government policy. In fact, Congress ignored Mills and Ulmer, while Goldschmidt’s study was actively suppressed by his bosses at the USDA, who, under the sway of big agribusiness, treated his research as though it were radioactive. They eventually fired Goldschmidt and abolished his entire department. In the following decades, a wide range of federal policies would work to facilitate and promote the concentration of capital and the rise of big industry.
Today, as we find ourselves struggling with a climate crisis that demands a far more active and creative democracy than we currently have, a new body of research is once again illustrating the civic advantages of decentralizing ownership and transitioning more of our economy to community-scaled enterprises.
“Residents of communities with highly concentrated economies tend to vote less and are less likely to keep up with local affairs, participate in associations, engage in reform efforts or participate in protest activities at the same levels as their counterparts in economically dispersed environments,” sociologists Troy Blanchard and Todd L. Matthews concluded in a 2006 study published in the journal Social Forces. In studies of both agricultural (2001) and manufacturing (2006) communities, the late Cornell sociologist Thomas Lyson also found that those places with a diversity of small-scale enterprises had higher levels of civic participation and better social outcomes than those controlled by a few outside corporations.
It’s not just that cities with more social capital are better able to foster local enterprises and resist corporate consolidation. The causality actually seems to go the other way: Where economic power is diffused, political power is more widely and democratically exercised. And, likewise, as economic power becomes more concentrated, civic engagement slumps. Sociologists Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha, for example, have documented a decline in civic participation, including voter turnout and the number of active nonprofit organizations, after Walmart moves into a community. And, with each Walmart store that opens in a city, social capital further erodes, their 2006 study finds.
Still other research has drawn a link between a small-scale economy and improved community well-being, including lower rates of crime and better public health. A study published in 2011, for example, found: “Counties with a vibrant small-business sector have lower rates of mortality and a lower prevalence of obesity and diabetes.” The authors surmise that a high degree of local ownership improves a community’s “collective efficacy” — the capacity of its residents to act together for mutual benefit. Previous research has linked collective efficacy to population health, finding that engaged communities tend to create the kinds of infrastructure (think of farmers markets and bike lanes) that foster healthier choices.
What is it about a locally rooted economy that fosters social ties and civic engagement? There’s much to be said for the value of doing business with people who know us and whose success is intimately tied to the well-being of the community. Small businesses are not merely smaller versions of large businesses; they are running on a different operating system altogether. Goldman Sachs makes money regardless of whether foreclosures are going up or down. But a local bank only does well when its borrowers do well. Business decisions are thus guided by very different motivations. And, in times of crisis, economic resources that are controlled locally are much more readily marshaled and reconfigured to meet shifting local needs.
Independent businesses also create environments that foster interaction. Research suggests you are roughly seven times as likely to end up in a conversation with another customer at a farmers market or neighborhood bookstore than you are at a big-box store (not to mention the isolating experience of shopping on Amazon). To run one’s errands in places that encourage lingering and conversation, where economic exchange is embedded in human relationships, is to experience the place where you live in a meaningful way. No wonder this leads to more engaged and resilient communities.
Of all the environmental benefits that might flow from shifting to a more locally focused economy — from reducing global shipping to creating systems of production that are better matched to the limits and resources of particular ecosystems — perhaps the most significant would be a renewed capacity to act together for the common good and tackle the looming challenges before us.
There is a titanic gulf between what we say ought to be done about climate change and what we are doing. This ineluctable fact has loomed behind national and international policymaking for decades, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore.
Here’s what we say ought to be done: Article 2 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which 194 countries are party (including the United States), commits to “stabilization of [greenhouse gas] concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In 2009, the international community got more specific. The Copenhagen Accord, with which over 140 countries have engaged (including the United States), representing more than 87 percent of global emissions, says that the countries of the world should “hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.”
What would it mean to hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C? Unfortunately, models do not offer definitive answers to such questions. All they produce are likelihoods. An emissions pathway that yields a high (90 percent-plus) probability of holding temperatures to 2°C is almost certainly beyond our grasp at this point. Achieving even a 50/50 chance at holding to 2°C would require heroic measures — peaking global emissions before 2020 and reducing them rapidly every year thereafter.
To do so “on the basis of equity” means allowing developing nations (Non-Annex 1 countries, in U.N. lingo) a somewhat longer window in which to peak and begin reducing emissions. After all, developed (Annex 1) nations had the luxury of cheap fossil fuels as they developed and are responsible for the bulk of historical emissions.
So let’s take a look at those emission pathways. In the graphic below, the graph on the left shows the pathway that would offer a 60 percent chance of holding temps to 2°C. The one in the middle shows at 50 percent chance. The one on the right shows a 50 percent chance, but with “more equity,” i.e., more time for non-Annex 1 nations to hit the peak. Observe:
Needless to say, we are not acting in a fashion that would put us on any of those emission curves. According to International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol, our current trajectory is “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6°C, which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”
In a more recent paper, Anderson and Bows try to make this gulf between stated intentions and actions more obvious by focusing on a single economic sector: the international shipping industry.
The industry is an interesting test case. Most global industries face a patchwork of national laws and regulations, but the agency that governs international shipping, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has argued strongly that the industry should be governed by a single regulatory regime, as though it were a sovereign nation of its own. So this is a case where the international community’s intentions could theoretically be translated directly to action, without national governments as intermediaries. The IMO has said that the industry “will make its fair and proportionate contribution” to international mitigation efforts. (Shipping is responsible for about 3 percent of global emissions.)
The trade association for merchant ship operators, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), has said that the industry’s efforts will “be at least as ambitious” as UNFCCC targets.
So here we have an industry that has pledged in strong terms to do what is necessary to hold global temperature rise to 2°C, and a governing regulatory body that has pledged the same. So what’s actually happening?
The IMO’s two big mitigation efforts are Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) and the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP). I won’t bore you with the details of those programs; we’ll skip to the part where Anderson and Bows show us how they stack up against the the reductions the industry would need to make if it were serious about 2°C.
In the graphic below, the graph on the left is three scenarios that represent international shipping doing its “fair and proportionate” share to reduce emissions. The graph on the right shows those scenarios compared to the emissions curves charted by the IMO’s policies:
You don’t have to be a scientist to note that the scenario lines go down and the industry’s lines go up. In fact, note Anderson and Bows, “the shipping industry’s EEDI and SEEMP leave the sector on a trajectory for emissions to be approximately 2200% higher by 2050 than is their fair and proportionate contribution.”
Let that sink in for a moment: 2,200 percent. That’s the size of the gulf between the industry’s stated intentions and the industry’s real-world policies, between what it says it intends to do and what it’s doing. Anderson and Bows call this a “Machiavellian duality,” and it is by no means unique to shipping. It is true of most industries and most countries. We talk a good game about 2°C, but nobody, anywhere, is doing close to what would be necessary to make it real.
To add a kind of surreal twist to all this, the industry talks constantly about the emission “reductions” it plans. How can it do this when, as the graph makes clear, it plans enormous emission increases? What enables this kind of Orwellian doublespeak?
The answer is that the reductions are relative to a baseline projection of growth. They’re lower than they would be otherwise, without policy to reduce emissions. You hear this all the time, from companies, industries, agencies, and countries, about emission “reductions” that are, in fact, merely slightly-less-enormous emission increases. And so we lull ourselves with the thought that we’re doing something, making progress.
To point this out is not to counsel despair. It is merely to state the truth. Incremental policies will not do the job — what’s needed is fundamental changes, policies that halve emissions and then halve them again, over and over, until 2050. (If you’re interested in shipping particularly, Anderson and Bows list some of those step-wise policies at the end of their paper.) What is true for shipping is true for virtually all the world’s industries and countries. They say they want to avoid dangerous climate change. But they are barreling toward it, tweaking their emissions at the margins, hoping that at the end of the day there might be an A for effort. There won’t be.