Home > economics of climate change > The D.C. Blackouts and Global Warming

The D.C. Blackouts and Global Warming

from Dean Baker

Millions of people across the East Coast are sweltering in near-record temperatures. In the Washington area, tens of thousands are dealing with the heat without air conditioning or power due to a storm the prior weekend. The remarkable part of this story is that almost no one is talking about global warming.

Of course no specific weather event can be directly tied to global warming, just as any individual person’s heart attack cannot be directly attributed to the fact that they don’t exercise and are 50 pounds overweight. In both cases it is a question of probabilities. And the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are raising the planet’s temperature substantially increases the probability that we will get long stretches of extraordinary heat like the one that hit the Midwest and Northeast over the last 10 days.

In short, this is what global warming looks like, or least what it looks like in the United States. If there were an environmental movement in the United States, they would be screaming at the top of their lungs about the harm to life and property from this heat wave and power outage.

These costs are likely to be considerable. Hundreds of thousands of people had to discard food in their refrigerators and freezers as a result of the power outages. Many gathered their family together and went to stay with friends or spend time in a hotel. There were likely hundreds of thousands of days of lost work. 

Putting it all together, we are easily talking about tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars of damage caused by just this one weather event. And that doesn’t even count the threat to life and health to the sick and elderly people who had to endure intense heat without air conditioning.

The right will be yelling about the $500 million that the government is at risk of losing on its loan guarantee to Solyndra long after we all are dead; yet we have an enormous tragedy in front of our eyes that is attributable to our failure to take serious steps to stem global warming and everyone is too polite to say anything. Does anyone wonder why the right seems to be winning?

There are a couple of other points about this story that are worth noting. First, some people were much better situated to protect themselves from this heat wave. It’s not clear whether wealthier neighborhoods were more likely to escape the power outages than poorer areas. (Many rich people live on tree-lined streets and have above ground power lines.)

However, there is no doubt that a person with money in the bank and an extensive line of credit in a credit card is better able to find a hotel room in which to keep their family cool for a few days than a person who is living paycheck to paycheck or perhaps is unemployed due to the downturn. This is what the impact of global warming will look like on a world scale.

Those who are relatively wealthy will likely be able to shield themselves from many of the worst effects of global warming. They will not be victims of monsoons and flooding like hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh and elsewhere in south Asia. Nor will they be victims of drought who are unable to produce enough food to survive, like tens of millions of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. While no one may be able to escape the negative effects of global warming completely, the bulk of the suffering will no doubt be experienced by the world’s poor.

This raises a final point, which should be obvious but somehow is largely ignored in the public debate. Restrictions on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are intended to limit global warming have nothing to do with restricting the market. These restrictions are about enforcing the rule of law and preventing some people from harming others with their actions.

In this way, restrictions on GHG are similar to the laws that prohibit me from dumping my sewage on my neighbor’s lawn. The opponents of these restrictions don’t give a damn about free markets. Opponents of restrictions on GHG emissions are arguing for the right to dump sewage on their neighbors’ lawn. Their argument is that the United States is a big powerful country so we can do whatever we want to the rest of the world and no one can stop us.

That may or may not prove true in the decades ahead as China surpasses the United States as an economic power and other countries continue to gain on us. But no one should mistake the position that we are strong enough to do whatever we want in the world, without regard to the consequences, for a principled commitment to a free market. The global warming deniers are committed to free dumping, not free markets.

  1. July 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    “If there were an environmental movement in the United States, they would be screaming at the top of their lungs about the harm to life and property from this heat wave and power outage.”

    The environmental and socio-economic movement in the US is often referred to as “Occupy.” This movement suffered physical abuse at the behest of the false democracy in the US and has now quietly begun the long-haul job of replacing the US government and introducing a modern information-age democracy that includes the economy.

    Global warming is a fever symptom of the much larger malady, fascist global totalitarianism.

  2. Nell
    July 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Dean Baker claims that people are too polite to speak out on global warming. Perhaps its something else. It just struck me that having a reasoned discussion on global warming with a denier is like trying to have a sensible discussion with a drunk. Maybe what prevents people from speaking out is that they sense it is a waste of time. We lost the power of reason as a force in argument a long time ago. Reason only barely trumps idealogy or vested interests in academia let alone in a world awash with spin doctors, market-speak, media spin. I don’t think its politeness that keeps people quiet, I think its helplessness. We’ve given up and we’re waiting for inevitable collapse so that we pick up the peices and leave all this madness behind.

  3. William Neil
    July 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Dean:

    Because you believe in progressive market solutions to our problems, I would like to offer this analysis. It is my considered impression that most of the mainstream environmental groups, the NWF, NRDC, En. Defense…invested much energy and money in a market based solution and bill in Congress, under the heading of “cap and trade.” Matt Taibbi has told us, in his famous vampire squid article about Goldman Sachs, that that firm, if not the rest of Wall Street, liked this idea very much and hoped to run the markets and platforms for trading the carbon credits. Notwithstanding the gut instinct to deeply question pushing a market solution that Goldman is wild about…still…environmentalists seemed to contort themselves in an effort to show how business and market friendly they were. I would also argue that the carbon tax was the simplest and most elegant way to put a price on carbon to slow the production of CO2 and move the entire economy to a different energy regime. I’ve seen Bill McKibben’s take on why they failed; would love to see Paul Hawken’s take on what happened as well…My sense is that to carry either of these two market based solutions foward in Congress, the green side of capitalism would have had to win a huge internal fight against the old energy regime. They either did go to the wall for the issue, or lost; I suspect it is the first, but that’s why I want to see Hawken give an account.

    Of course, the anti-global warming Right, which includes many beyond the business community, used the game plan that trading carbon credits was a tax (sound familiar from the current health care penalty debate?) and obviously that applied to Jim Hansen’s proposal, which made no attempt to disguise raising the price of carbon directly through a tax. And this strategy of the Right seemed to gain in traction as the economic crisis deepened; raising taxes not being a good policy choice under deflationary conditions. (And yes, I am aware that there were late bills that rebated all the revenue from the increased price of carbon back to taxpayers…)

    So I wouldn’t dismiss Naomi Klein’s provocative essay “Capitalism vs the Climate,” which has a more sweeping take on how this played out in the minds of the Right. That would be a great debate, Baker vs Klein on the environmental failure with global warming. I would also add in the perspective from Corey Robin’s much debated book on the Right, “The Reactionary MInd: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” The weakest part of this book is that on Conservatives and the Market; I think Robin gives far, far too much weight to the few conservatives who have parted ways with market fundamentalism; they are not carrying much weight in public debates. But Robin gives great emphasis to the fact that conservatism is about maintaining control over the lower orders, from challenges below, and I would extend that to their fight for their own definitions of “free markets” and what goes on inside of them, whether in fact they are ever fair playing fields, this is the Right’s home terrain. His emphasis leads right into the heart of the arguments Naomi Klein makes in her important essay: global warming and efforts to stop it was rightly seen as a direct threat, at every level, to the entire economic system and who controls it, something the Right saw right away, therefore demonstrating a deeper understanding of the POLITICAL ECONOMY than the environmental movement, which was trying to disguise and dress up their proposals to show how market friendly they were.

    I’ll leave Karl Polanyi’s take on markets for another time, and just add that last night i was reading an illuminating chapter in Christopher Lasch’s last book – The Revolt of the Elite’s and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996) -, entitled Communitarianism or Populism, which has extended commentary about the limitation of markets, and I recommend it highly to Dean Baker, especially since he makes the statement that markets in a capitalist society have a universal, expansionary dynamic: they want to run all aspects of life, not just the economic sphere, and at the age of 62, I have to agree with that assessment. Lash ended up as well to the left on economics but socially quite conservative, widely read at the time, now forgotten, and he never got the genuine “third way” he was searching for (and wouldn’t have been too happy with Clinton and Blair…in my opinion) Lasch died in 1994.

  4. July 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    glad to know that Dean Baker is an expert on global warming, and that we should listen to him with the same attention as when he talks about unemployment or social security

  5. William Neil
    July 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    And maybe I should add this irony. Has the world ever seen a ruling regime more devoted to change, innovation and creative destruction, the very antithesis of “conservatism,” than capitalism? Yet when faced with the possible destruction of the climate, based on the conclusions of its own servant, science, suddenly it doesn’t like change at all. Robin’s book tells us why: capitalists aren’t so wild about change when they will not be entirely in charge. Imagine the indignities of having to cede some power, some agency, some “standing,” to environmentalists, to scientists when they disagree, and the longstanding one from the 19th century to the New Deal right up until our own day: to some regulatory body. True, Corey Robin does point out the inventiveness, creativity and flexibility that has allowed the Right to stay on top for more than 30 years now (and shows that Burke had these traits as well)…but it’s hard to see any accomodation they’re willing to make on global warming.

  6. July 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    And we should recognize that science is tending to lead toward the idea that civilization is closer to an identifiable living being than a garden; profits to civilization are thus beyond the old concepts of socialism or communism, and into the the realm of a modern democracy that includes the economy.

  7. William Neil
    July 14, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Let me respond further to Dean Baker’s article along two broad lines. One point he raises, the ability to sue over global warming and its equation with dumping sewage on a someones property is interesting, because the use of “nuisance laws” as a means of environmental protection has long been advocated by a wing of the conservative legal movement as an alternative to the regulatory state, and presumably, as an alternative to stretching the commerce clause.

    As the former director of Conservation for New Jersey Audubon Society I was in the front lines of the regulatory laws for more than a decade, and warned repeatedly about the threat that the rise of the Republican Right raised to the conservation cause.

    This conservative legal movement was well under way during my active years through the late 1980’s and 1990’s and I didn’t think that it was a very sound alternative to laws which directly protected natural resources, whether that was farmland, wetlands, the New Jersey Pinelands, the Hackensack Meadowlands or most recently, the New Jersey Highlands (and by the way the Pineland and the Highlands are both important acquifer and watershed regions).

    One of the chief flaws in protecting an important natural resource under the nuisance concept is that it relies on the legal and financial resources (closely related in the real world) of the affected party to bring the action, and in addition, the whole theory would have a difficult time addressing the slow and incremental damage represented by sole actors – “a thousand points of polluting” : prove that my coal burning plant alone is causing that harm…what about the autos, the Indians, the Chinese….it would also be difficult to apply to endangered species and land use issues where protection woould have to rest upon the continual suing of offending parties as they developed the land, parcel by parcel, having to prove direct damage in each case, when we have learned that it is often, in the case of species protections, or watershed protection or wetlands protection that is the slow and incremental destruction, piece by piece that can degrade a resource over time, decades and centuries. So New Jersey’s approach has been to carefully, scientifically and legally designate the region or resource to be protected, pass a law which lays out the case in the “finding section” – the public purpose – and then there would be more carefully delineated regulations that spelled out the laws operation to cover the many situations which would arise. To be sure, such an approach does not entirely rule out slow incremental losses over time; for example NJ has the nation’s toughest wetland’s law, passed in the late 1980’s, which almost entirely rules out the losses of more than several acres of wetlands…except for carefully defined public purposes…highways or airport runways, with a strong buden of proving no alternatives, but it allows for many small 1/4 to 1/2 acre losses for routine maintenace activities including roads and utilties…so that in the nation’s most congested state,famous for its roads (or is it infamous?) the small losses continue to chop up wetlands over the decades, and that in a state which had historically lost 50% or more of its originial wetlands. (And just so that readers have no illusions about NJ, its tough environmental laws have been under constant attacks led by the Republican Right and conservative Democrats, Gov. Christie being a good current example…)

    Under Dean’s scheme for suing to stop global warming, applied in the wetlands realm, one property owner would have to show that when a home builder filled an acre for a new house, the displaced water from this action caused the flooding 1/2 mile downstream, flooding the offended parties basement. Very tough to do…

    My second broad point, speaking to Dean Baker’s search for market friendly tools – if not the search for the perfect market – the one that would be the most neutral tool – (and good luck in that search Dean, when did the perfect market exist: in the age of Jacksonian, the 1820’s and 1830’s; or in wheat farming in the gilded age, with millions of wheat farmers world wide – and weren’t the farmers a happy lot in the US with the market system?), let’s think about the market in land, the original real estate market. In essence, the market view of land pays no attention in itself to the differences in natural resources of the land – it’s all real estate, whether it is endangered species habitat, a acquifer recharge area, or the deepest and best drained farmland (and readers please note that their taxpayers dollars went in the millions to have the US Soil Service map and grade all the soils of the US, a tremendous service to the real estate industry.) It can all be developed; now it is true that well-drained farmland might bring a higher price than an obvious wetland when placed in this market…but unscrupulous developers were very good at buying not so obvious high water table land (which today would be delineated as wetlands) for a cheap price and developing that for housing, as outraged homeowners later found out. So this was the pre-regulatory world in NJ as it still is in much of the rest of the US…

    Now,along the lines that Dean is suggesting for global warming, but with a different twist, another school of anti-regulatory environmentalists (and also those who are not) has been working to come up with “prices” for natural resources as a way to get them into the market accounting system, to show the market value of what greens are trying to save and also to come up with a schema of fines or damages when these resources are damaged or destroyed. So this school can cut in several directions at once, and can be aimed, coupled with Dean’s nuisance suits, with doing away with the existing regulatory approaches. I’m leary of these direction for a whole host of reasons including impracticality, turning nature into a commodity where the richest alterer can still pay, and the damage be done, and the fact that no one can come up with an accurate price on the value of pristine or still functioning ecosytems…I was not a fan of the fantastic world of carbon offsets that flowered late in the cap and trade system…along these reasons….it never stops the pollutions, and mostly ends of protecting, for a price, forests that already exist and which ought to be protected for their other valid contributions to the long term welfare of nature and people….

    And as I look back now upon the decade I spent in protective land-use issues, I might offer the following thought about what New Jersey did in the Pinelands and Highlands and Hackensack Meadowlands, and in its wetlands law,although the framers and defenders, including myself, never spoke in these terms. What the state did was really bring “social democracy” to land-use. Instead of letting a “pure free-market” in land put a price on all the varieties of nature and its ecosystems which are the living realities buried under the term “its all real-estate,” NJ laws said that it was not all real estate; the land had very important virtues for people and nature that the pure market pricing system would never protect, just as NJ’s willing seller program called Green Acres has been unsuccessful in protecting ecosystems even as it was willing to pay this “fair market price” – but all on seller’s terms…So NJ stepped in with a Social Democratic regulatory system for people and nature which said, after scientific studies and a publicly debated plan (and after democratic processes in the Congress and legislature gave the go-ahed) that this type of land couldn’t not be developed by market forces, with the following exceptions, carefully laid out…

    So, without ever citing Karl Polanyi’ famous lines from his 1944 book “The Great Transformation,” that the pure free market if ever unleashed in its primitive form (which still took enormous govt efforts to set up) would destroy both society and nature, which is my answer to Dean Baker’s constant search for the reasons that everyone – left, right and center – always want to intervene to shape the market their way – maybe, just maybe that’s because of just what Polanyi said it was: no one can live with the destructive power and pain of raw free markets: not the American farmer, not the current day banksters who are rigging them grandly…and certainly not the natural world that we all still depend upon…

    Let me close by quoting from a non-economist, the historian Christopher Lasch, now deceased, who spent so much effort in also trying to find out what was wrong with “loser” liberalism, and who, in “Revolt of the Elites,” published after his death (1994) in 1996,
    was grappling with the same political and economic questions still bedevling the “left” today. Here’s what he had to say in that chapter on Populism and Communitarianism, both movements which have to grapple with the nature of the market and what it can and cannot do…it suggests that what Dean Baker wants progressives to do with bending markets to their values won’t be easy at all…since the markets have universalized their economic values throughout all the society…already…and most certainly in the political arena…and less and less arguably,in the Supreme Court. But here’s Lasch:

    “The market notoriously tends to universilize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles anitthetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.” (And wetlands into real estate.)

    That is the real answer, Dean, as to why the environmental movement failed in its Global Warming regulatory attempt. Market values – the ones in the brutal real economic world we live in, of rigged Libor rates – has the environmental movement check-mated and stalemated in every phase of its work, air and water pollution, endangered species work, wetlands protections…Superfund renewal and clean-up…and most certainly, Global Warming prevention.

  8. July 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    There will be older adults who remember the old environmentalism vs. jobs debate, and this all-too-simplistic rhetoric has remained, at least in the background of the collective consciousness. Thus, when the climate-change deniers came out, the climate-change issue was quickly equated with the environmentalism of the ’60s/’70s, at least subconsciously, and there were probably some who equated climate change with threatening jobs. For those who were more worried about jobs in this red-herring debate, the only rebuttal they could mount was to deny climate change.

    As the weather patterns continue to change, it gets more and more difficult to mount denials of climate change. The debates over -what- is causing the change may not subside, but the outright denial of climate change is disappearing.

    Dean mentions “The remarkable part of this story is that almost no one is talking about global warming,” and this is true. I think what we may have reached is a lull, where reality starts to sink in but nobody from the denier camp is quite ready to step forward and say, “We got it wrong.”

    The rapidly deteriorating weather situation is very sobering indeed. Now the most troublesome question that remains on the table is, do we have time to correct this shift? Can we correct the shift?

    • July 16, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      The time has come to abandon the US government to the totalitarian dust heap and begin again with a new and real democracy that can actually focus the intelligence of information age humanity and straight out criminalizes Hollywood style brainwashing that has proven so effective at marketing plastic fantastics, war and smiling sociopathic politicians.

  9. July 17, 2012 at 7:58 am

    dean baker is allus talking about economic growth. sold his condo, moved to my hood (which is 100% gentri/fried), kicked me out, and noone talks about global warming. depends who you talk to.

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