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Christian Parenti: Big Storms Require Big Government

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

At some basic level, climate change shouldn't be hard to grasp.  Fossil-fuel burning -- the essence of our civilization since the industrial revolution -- dumps prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.  As it happens, 2010 was another banner year for carbon dioxide production; the 5.9% rise in CO2 emissions was the "biggest jump ever recorded." That greenhouse gas, in turn, traps heat and so warms the planet.  The results are clear enough for anyone to see.  Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.  Last year was the ninth warmest on record, despite an expected cooling effect from a strong La Niña temperature pattern in the Pacific Ocean.

More heat means more turbulence, which means more extreme weather events, which have clearly been on the rise -- more wetness, more droughts, fiercer storms.  In that category, 2011 was definitely a year for the record books, with an unprecedented 14 weather events that each caused $1 billion or more in damage.  More extreme weather means more human misery, relatively predictable globally, but reasonably unexpected when it actually hits locally. 

The urge not to believe that we are despoiling our own planet has meant that we've been slow to develop alternate energy sources, but not slow to grow economically.  What that means, of course, is that the search only intensifies for more fossil fuels, ever tougher to get as time goes on and ever "dirtier" (in greenhouse gas terms) to produce.

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It's the definition of a nasty feedback loop, made worse because the changing planet is itself setting off other phenomena that only increase the warming trend.  Arctic sea ice, now melting at prodigious rates, reflects the sun's heat back into the atmosphere.  Less ice, in other words, isn't just a sign of the planet getting hotter, but a factor in heating up the planet.  In addition, the more iceless the oceans, the more their waters absorb carbon emissions, which only puts further pressure on many of the life forms living in them.  Similarly, the melting of the permafrost in the northern reaches of the planet, which contains vast frozen reservoirs of another greenhouse gas, methane, might -- no one is yet sure -- sooner or later release enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere, only increasing the overheating effect.  It's creepy.  It's happening.  And Ma Nature really doesn't give a damn whether we're in denial or not.

Sooner or later, undoubtedly, denial will give way to... well, who knows what?  Christian Parenti, author of a new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, that, under the circumstances, couldn't be more relevant or recommended, has some thoughts on why it's time to stop cursing big government and think more seriously about what its role might be in the future that awaits us. Tom

Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government
A Secret History of Free Enterprise and the Government That Made It Possible

By Christian Parenti

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Look back on 2011 and you'll notice a destructive trail of extreme weather slashing through the year. In Texas, it was the driest year ever recorded.  An epic drought there killed half a billion trees, touched off wildfires that burned four million acres, and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and buildings.  The costs to agriculture, particularly the cotton and cattle businesses, are estimated at $5.2 billion -- and keep in mind that, in a winter breaking all sorts of records for warmth, the Texas drought is not yet over.

In August, the East Coast had a close brush with calamity in the form of Hurricane Irene. Luckily, that storm had spent most of its energy by the time it hit land near New York City. Nonetheless, its rains did at least $7 billion worth of damage, putting it just below the $7.2 billion worth of chaos caused by Katrina back in 2005.

Across the planet the story was similar. Wildfires consumed large swaths of Chile. Colombia suffered its second year of endless rain, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. In Brazil, the life-giving Amazon River was running low due to drought. Northern Mexico is still suffering from its worst drought in 70 years. Flooding in the Thai capital, Bangkok, killed over 500 and displaced or damaged the property of 12 million others, while ruining some of the world's largest industrial parks. The World Bank estimates the damage in Thailand at a mind-boggling $45 billion, making it one of the most expensive disasters ever.  And that's just to start a 2011 extreme-weather list, not to end it.

Such calamities, devastating for those affected, have important implications for how we think about the role of government in our future. During natural disasters, society regularly turns to the state for help, which means such immediate crises are a much-needed reminder of just how important a functional big government turns out to be to our survival.

These days, big government gets big press attention -- none of it anything but terrible.  In the United States, especially in an election year, it's become fashionable to beat up on the public sector and all things governmental (except the military).  The Right does it nonstop.  All their talking points disparage the role of an oversized federal government. Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist famously set the tone for this assault.  "I'm not in favor of abolishing the government," he said. "I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." He has managed to get 235 members of the House of Representatives and 41 members of the Senate to sign his "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" and thereby swear never , under any circumstances, to raise taxes.

By now, this viewpoint has taken on the aura of folk wisdom, as if the essence of democracy were to hate government. Even many on the Left now regularly dismiss government as nothing but oversized, wasteful, bureaucratic, corrupt, and oppressive, without giving serious consideration to how essential it may be to our lives.

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But don't expect the present "consensus" to last.  Global warming and the freaky, increasingly extreme weather that will accompany it is going to change all that. After all, there is only one institution that actually has the capacity to deal with multibillion-dollar natural disasters on an increasingly routine basis.  Private security firms won't help your flooded or tornado-struck town. Private insurance companies are systematically withdrawing coverage from vulnerable coastal areas. Voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity groups -- each may prove helpful in limited ways, but for better or worse, only government has the capital and capacity to deal with the catastrophic implications of climate change.

Consider Hurricane Irene: as it passed through the Northeast, states mobilized more than 100,000 National Guard troops. New York City opened 78 public emergency shelters prepared to house up to 70,000 people. In my home state, Vermont, where the storm devastated the landscape, destroying or damaging 200 bridges, more than 500 miles of road, and 100 miles of railroad, the National Guard airlifted in free food, water, diapers, baby formula, medicine, and tarps to thousands of desperate Vermonters trapped in 13 stranded towns -- all free of charge to the victims of the storm.

The damage to Vermont was estimated at up to $1 billion. Yet the state only has 621,000 residents, so it could never have raised all the money needed to rebuild alone. Vermont businesses, individuals, and foundations have donated at least $4 million, possibly up to $6 million in assistance, an impressive figure, but not a fraction of what was needed. The state government immediately released $24 million in funds, crucial to getting its system of roads rebuilt and functioning, but again that was a drop in the bucket, given the level of damage.  A little known state-owned bank, the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank, also offered low-interest, low-collateral loans to towns to aid reconstruction efforts. But without federal money, which covered 80% to 100% of the costs of rebuilding many Vermont roads, the state would still be an economic basket case.  Without aid from Washington, the transportation network might have taken years to recover.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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