Month: November 2017

We’re Not Even Close To Being Prepared For The Rising Waters

Some of humanity’s most primordial stories involve flooding: The tales of Noah, and before that Gilgamesh, tell what happens when the water starts to rise and doesn’t stop. But for the 10,000 years of human civilization, we’ve been blessed with a relatively stable climate, and hence flooding has been an exceptional terror.

As that blessing comes to an end with our reckless heating of the planet, the exceptional is becoming all too normal, as residents of Houston and South Florida and Puerto Rico found out already this fall.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria provide a dramatic backdrop for the story Jeff Goodell tells in “The Water Will Come”: If there was ever a moment when Americans might focus on drainage, this is it. But this fine volume (which expands on his reporting in Rolling Stone) concentrates on the slower and more relentless toll that water will take on our cities and our psyches in the years to come. Those who pay attention to global warming have long considered that its effects on hydrology — the way water moves around the planet — may be even more dramatic than the straightforward increases in temperature.

To review the basic physics: Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does, which means you get more evaporation and hence drought in arid areas, and more rainfall and hence floods in wet ones. (Harvey, for example, was the greatest rainfall event in American history, the kind of deluge possible only in a warmer world.) Meanwhile, heat melts ice: Greenland and the Antarctic are vast stores of what would otherwise be ocean, and now they’re beginning to surrender that water back to the sea.

These effects were somewhat harder to calculate than other impacts of climate change. In particular, scientists were slow to understand how aggressively the poles would melt, and hence the main international assessments, until recently, forecast relatively modest rises in sea level: three feet, perhaps, by century’s end. That’s enough to cause major problems, but perhaps not insuperable ones — richer cities could probably build seawalls and other barriers to keep themselves above the surface. Yet new assessments of the disintegration of glaciers, and more data from deep in the Earth’s past, have convinced many scientists that we could be looking at double or triple that rate of sea level rise in the course of the century. Which may take what would have been a major problem and turn it into a largely insoluble new reality.

Consider Miami and Miami Beach, where Goodell has concentrated much of his reporting. Built on porous limestone or simply mounds of mud dredged from the surrounding sea, low-lying South Florida streets already flood regularly at especially high tides. The simple facts, however, haven’t stopped the Miami real estate boom: When Irma hit, more than 20 huge cranes were at work building high-rises (and two of them toppled). Goodell manages to track down the city’s biggest real estate developer, Jorge Perez, at a museum opening. He was not, he said, worried about the rising sea because “I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this. If it is a problem for Miami, it will also be a problem for New York and Boston — so where are people going to go?” (He added, with shameless narcissism, “Besides, by that time I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”)

Goodell dutifully tracks down the people who are working on those “solutions” — the Miami Beach engineers who are raising city streets and buildings; their Venetian counterparts who are building a multibillion-dollar series of inflatable booms that can hold back storm tides. In every case, the engineering is dubious, not to mention hideously expensive. And more to the point, it’s all designed for the relatively mild two- or three-foot rises in sea level that used to constitute the worst-case scenarios. Such tech is essentially useless against the higher totals we now think are coming, a fact that boggles most of the relevant minds. When a University of Miami geologist explains to some Florida real estate agents that he thinks sea level rise may top 15 feet by 2100, Goodell describes one “expensively dressed broker who was seated near me” who sounded “like a six-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum. . . . ‘This can’t be a fear-fest,’ she protested. ‘Why is everyone picking on Miami?’ ”

No one is picking on Miami. But the developed world is definitely picking on the low-lying islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. (Goodell gives sharp descriptions of the imperiled Marshalls and the outsize role the nation played in international climate negotiations.) The vast majority of people at risk live in places such as Bangladesh and Burma, where rising seas are already swamping farmland and forcing internal migration, mostly of people who have burned so little fossil fuel that they have played no serious part in causing the crisis we now face.

There are precisely two answers that give some hope to a world facing this greatest of all challenges. The first is to stop burning fossil fuels. If we moved with great speed toward 100 percent renewable energy, we might still hold sea level rise to a meter or two. And this is now a realistic possibility: The rapid fall in the price of wind and solar power over the past few years means we could conceivably make the transition in time. That’s precisely what President Trump is now preventing (and to be fair, it’s more than President Barack Obama wanted to do, either — Goodell’s extensive interviews with the former president capture both his fine rhetoric and his sad policy waffling). At this point, the world seems more likely to stumble along a path of slow conversion to clean energy, guaranteeing that the great ice sheets will crumble.

The other way forward is to adapt to the unpreventable rise in sea level. Goodell describes a few of the plans for floating buildings and such, but if you want a real sense of what this option looks like, you’re better off reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive and massively enjoyable novel “New York 2140,” published this year. Robinson is described as a science fiction writer, but in this case he’s more like a political scientist, describing a New York a century from now that’s been largely inundated but where people inhabit (often with surprising good cheer) the ever-shifting intertidal zone. Of course, this metro-size version of the Swiss Family Robinson happens only after two great pulses of sea level rise have killed off a huge percentage of the human population, so it’s not the ideal scenario.

Or we could take the path laid out by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at the 100th anniversary of the founding of Miami Beach. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world with a phone you carried around in your pocket,” he said in 2015, “you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or 40 years from now, he promised, “we’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.” Forget building the ark, Noah — we’ve got an app for that.

The US Plutocracy’s War On Sustainable Development

Billionaire US plutocrats such as Charles and David Koch, Robert Mercer, and Sheldon Adelson have long played their politics for personal financial gain – even if it means boosting inequality at home and blocking sustainable development worldwide. To stop them, US citizens will need to regain the upper hand in electoral politics.

The US plutocracy has declared war on sustainable development. Billionaires such as Charles and David Koch (oil and gas), Robert Mercer (finance), and Sheldon Adelson (casinos) play their politics for personal financial gain. They fund Republican politicians who promise to cut their taxes, deregulate their industries, and ignore the warnings of environmental science, especially climate science.

When it comes to progress toward achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the US placed 42nd out of 157 countries in a recent ranking of the SDG Index that I help to lead, far below almost all other high-income countries. Danish author Bjørn Lomborg . How could such a rich country score so low? “America-bashing is popular and easy,” he surmised.

Yet this is not about America-bashing. The SDG Index is built on internationally comparable data relevant to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 157 countries. The real point is this: sustainable development is about social inclusion and environmental sustainability, not just wealth. The US ranks far behind other high-income countries because America’s plutocracy has for many years turned its back on social justice and environmental sustainability.

The US is indeed a rich country, but Lord Acton’s famous aphorism applies to nations as well as to individuals: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The US plutocracy has wielded so much power for so long that it acts with impunity vis-à-vis the weak and the natural environment.

Four powerful lobbies have long held sway: Big Oil, private health care, the military-industrial complex, and Wall Street. These special interests feel especially empowered now by Donald Trump’s administration, which is filled with corporate lobbyists, not to mention several right-wing billionaires in the cabinet.

While the Sustainable Development Goals call for mitigating climate change through decarbonization (SDG 7, SDG 13), US fossil-fuel companies are strenuously resisting. Under the sway of Big Oil and Big Coal, Trump announced his intention to  from the Paris climate agreement.

America’s annual energy-related per capita CO2emissions, at 16.4 tons, are the highest in the world for a large economy. The comparable figure for Germany, for example, is 9.2 tons. The US Environmental Protection Agency, now in the hands of lobbyists from the fossil-fuel sector, dismantles environmental regulations every week (though many of these actions are being challenged in court).

The SDGs also call for reduced income inequality (SDG 10). America’s income inequality has soared in the past 30 years, with the Gini coefficient at 41.1, the second highest among high-income economies, just behind Israel (at 42.8). Republican proposals for tax cuts would increase inequality further. The US rate of relative poverty (households at less than half of median income), at 17.5%, is also the second highest in the OECD (again just behind Israel).

Likewise, while the SDGs target decent jobs for all (SDG 8), American workers are nearly the only ones in the OECD that lack guaranteed paid sick leave, family leave, and vacation days. The result is that more and more Americans work in miserable conditions without job protections. Around nine million American workers are stuck below the poverty line.

The US also suffers from an epidemic of malnutrition at the hands of the powerful US fast-food industry, which has essentially poisoned the public with diets loaded with saturated fats, sugar, and unhealthy processing and chemical additives. The result is an obesity rate of 33.7%, the highest by far in the OECD, with enormous adverse consequences for non-communicable diseases. America’s “healthy life expectancy” (morbidity-free years) is only 69.1 years, compared to 74.9 years in Japan and 73.1 years in Switzerland.

While the Sustainable Development Goals emphasize peace (SDG 16), America’s military-industrial complex pursues open-ended wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, to name some of America’s current engagements) and large-scale arms sales. On his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump signed a deal to sell over $100 billion in weapons to the country, boasting that it would mean “jobs, jobs, jobs” in America’s defense sector.

America’s plutocracy contributes to homegrown violence as well. The US homicide rate, 3.9 per 100,000, is the highest of any OECD country, and several times higher than in Europe (Germany’s rate is 0.9 per 100,000). Month after month, there are mass shootings in the US, such as the massacre in Las Vegas. Yet the political power of the gun lobby, which opposes limits even on assault weapons, has blocked the adoption of measures that would boost public safety.

Another kind of violence is mass incarceration. With 716 inmates per 100,000 people, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, roughly ten times that of Norway (71 per 100,000). Remarkably, America has partly privatized its prisons, creating an industry with an overriding interest in maximizing the number of prisoners. Former President Barack Obama issued a directive to phase out private federal prisons, but the Trump administration reversed it.

Lomborg also  the US gets a low score on global “Partnership for the Goals,” even though the US gave around $33.6 billion in official development assistance (ODA) in 2016. The answer is easy: relative to gross national income of almost $19 trillion, ODA spending by the US amounted to just 0.18% of GNI – roughly a quarter of the global target of 0.7% of GDP.

America’s low ranking in the SDG Index is not America-bashing. Rather, it is a sad and troubling reflection of the wealth and power of lobbies relative to ordinary citizens in US politics. I recently helped to launch an effort to refocus state-level US politics around sustainable development, through a set of America’s Goals that candidates for state legislatures are beginning to adopt. I am confident that a post-Trump America will recommit itself to the values of the common good, both within America and as a global partner for sustainable development.