How Climate Change Is Worsened by Attacks on the Public Sector, Science and Regulation
Photo Credit: Lisa S./ Shutterstock.com
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NERMEEN SHAIKH: Christian Parenti is the author of Tropic of Chaos, most recently.
You’ve talked a lot about the effects of global warming and climate change in the rest of the world, especially in the Global South. One of the arguments made for why in the U.S. there is so much climate science denial is that populations here are relatively isolated from its worst effects. But as we see more and more extreme weather events like we’ve witnessed, how likely do you think that that is to continue, because more and more people are, of course, being affected?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I don’t know whether people’s minds are going to change if there’s this continual barrage of disinformation, but it’s becoming a reality in everyday life, undeniably. And I think what it does is it calls to question the role of government. And the real difference between the Global South and the North in facing this problem is that, in the Global South, government—the public sector—has been systematically dismantled, on the orders of the IMF and the World Bank through structural adjustment programs, state assets have been privatized, and state capacity has been diminished. And so, people fall back, in the face of extreme weather, on their own devices, which in places like Kenya and Afghanistan are cheap AK-47s and raiding your neighbor’s cattle or turning to the drug trade. But in this country, there is still, despite a generation-long assault on the public sector and on government, which is picking up pace now, as we all know—there still is a public sector.
And at these moments, another thing that’s missing from these discussions is not just the word "climate change," but the words "public sector." I mean, who’s out there fighting these fires? It’s the public sector, you know? Where do people go when there are these cooling centers? It’s the public sector. It’s public schools, which are currently being privatized in Philadelphia. This assault on the public sector must be linked to climate change. So, in the face of extreme weather, I think that there really is—you know, we have to embrace the fact that U.S. capitalism is essentially a mixed economy already. We have 35 percent of the GDP is government activity. This is a right-wing talking point. Many on the left don’t even discuss it, but that’s a tool we can use.
AMY GOODMAN: Vermont is a perfect example of this.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yes. And last year we had Hurricane Irene dumped a lot rain on Vermont. And people came together on a voluntary basis, communities, but also the state government was there with lots of aid, levels of aid that far outstrip the great generosity of Vermont businesses by, you know, factors of three, four, five. And in these moments, we have to recognize that we are all connected and that one of the most important institutions for managing these types of crises is the public sector and that we cannot fire public workers, we cannot dismantle the state, and that it is clearly not always efficient and—inefficient and corrupt. It actually does lots and lots of valuable things.
And, you know, I’ll bet you what’s going to happen later in the summer is that FEMA is going to come under attack again. That’s what happened at the end of last summer, right? The right wing turned on FEMA. They said they were spending too much. Well, they’re spending too much because disasters have, you know, gone—they’ve doubled. The number of declared disasters have doubled in the last 20 years, like 99 last year. So, the GOP is trying to strip FEMA’s budget. Why do they hate FEMA so much? If you actually look into what FEMA does, it makes perfect sense why the right hates FEMA. Same reason they hate Social Security. Because it works. Because it’s a public agency that helps redistribute wealth to people in need. And it does all sorts of things that are essential to the people who are affected by disasters and to the regional economies that need to recover.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the difference also in the United States the level of power exerted by the oil companies, the wealthiest in the world—I mean, in terms of advertisements and the corporate media, etc.? I wanted to bring up a tweet of Bill McKibben. This is on the issue of the topic of fossil fuel subsidies at the Rio+20 summit. Bill McKibben tweeted, "Proposal: Each time we set a new temp record, deduct 1% from Exxon’s subsidy payments. 2000 new records last month, let’s see, that’s..." Christian Parenti?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, I mean, we should obviously reduce all those subsidies, and we should allow the EPA to do what it is mandated to do, which is impose a de facto carbon tax. With the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed by Clinton in the mid-'90s and then not ratified by the Senate, states and green organizations sued, saying the EPA should be regulating greenhouse gases. They won that suit. It was just reaffirmed again recently. What that means is that the EPA is responsible for issuing rules that would raise the cost of burning fossil fuels. If that happens, there will be a massive shift of investment away from these now dirty and subsidized industries towards clean industries. These laws exist. This needs to happen. The government, as being one-third or more of the economy, could lead the way by saying, "OK, all of our new vehicles are going to be electric. We're going to set out a schedule for buying clean power for all of our buildings." The federal government is the largest single consumer of power in the economy.
So, you know, also, the private sector—you know, profits have really recovered in this economy. The private sector is sitting on more uninvested cash, corporate America is. And this is—I’m not talking about profits paid out or bonuses, I’m talking about money they’re sitting on in the form of short-term Treasury bonds. They’re waiting for cues. "Where do we invest?" If the government allowed the EPA to do what it must do—raise the price of burning fossil fuels—that would help direct private money into renewable energy. It would help put people back to work. So, you know, there’s—in the face of this crisis, we have to really think seriously and maturely and creatively about the role of government.
Just one other fact about this disaster stuff: you know, the only place you can get flood insurance is basically the federal government. It writes 95 percent of flood insurance. This is never discussed. This is—what underwrites the recovery of so many flood-hit communities is the public sector.
AMY GOODMAN: What about climate change globally? Give us—paint us the picture and what it means. You started to talk about that.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, it’s kicking in all over the world. I was just in Vietnam. They take it very seriously there. There, there’s no—I mean, denial of climate change doesn’t even occur. There, the debate is, do we protect the Mekong Delta, which is the heart of the Vietnamese economy—Vietnam was, for the last 10 years, the world’s top rice exporter. That all comes from the Mekong Delta. The debate there is, do we put dikes on the edge of the Mekong Delta, or do we retreat one kilometer in to help the mangroves retreat? So they’re having a very sophisticated discussion.
And what it means is that, you know, people do not have institutions like FEMA to fall back on. And so, poor farmers get hit, they lose their land, they migrate to the cities. In places like, you know, other places with violence going on, people fall into sort of, you know, drug economies in cities or rural raiding, or they are attracted to millenarian religious and ethnic fanaticism, and these become the solutions, and they pick up the gun. And that’s what Topic of Chaos is all about, looking at how climate change plays out through political institutions and then shows up as violence. And this often happens in very attenuated ways.
So you had the Arab Spring, to some extent, which is many, many positive aspects of this, but it is also associated with three wars, you know: Libya, Syria, Yemen. Part of what triggered that was, I think, climate change in grain-producing areas. The U.S. and Canada hit by floods. Australia, drought. Drought in Russia—Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which caused Russia to ban its wheat exports in 2010. Single-largest grain wheat importer in the world? Egypt. Food prices were running at over 20 percent inflation a year at that—from 2010 to 2011, when the Arab Spring kicked off. And if you go back and look, the first demands were all about the rising cost of living, with food being at the center of it. And that, to some extent, was, you could say, the expression of climate change impacting agriculture in other places, showing up as suffering and political crisis and then violence in the Middle East.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask Suzanne Goldenberg one of the points that Christian Parenti raised, which has to do with public sector cuts. Something you’ve spoken about in your reporting for The Guardian is the amount of funding cuts, congressional budget cuts to—for preventing and putting out wildfires. $500 million have been cut since 2010. That’s almost 15 percent of the budget. Can you say a little about the significance of that and the impact it’s had since these fires have broken out?
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, it’s a huge impact. I mean, every prediction says that wildfires are going to be increasing over the next 10 years. And yet, we have a Congress that is—a Republican-controlled Congress in the House that is opposed to spending money on things that would protect people and/or on any kind of public project. So what you’ve got now is the Forest Service coming forward every year saying, "We need this money, not just to fight fires, but to take the kind of steps that are necessary to ensure that when fires do occur, that they won’t be so devastating, that they won’t burn for weeks and weeks, that they won’t devour hundreds of thousands of acres of forest." You know, and those are programs where you’ve sort of managed the materials in the forest. You might thin out forests so there’s not there a lot to burn. You might develop a space between the forest and people’s houses, so those houses don’t burn down like we’ve seen in Colorado Springs. So those programs, as well as the programs for putting out fires when they do occur, have both been cut this year. And that’s going to have a pretty devastating effect. There’s a lot of people very worried about that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Christian Parenti, you spoke about the effects of rising wheat prices and the effects it had on Egypt and the Arab Spring. One of the effects of the fires and the heatwave and the floods in the U.S. is likely to be a dramatic increase in the price of corn, wheat, again, and soybean. What do you think some of the global consequences of the increase in these commodities will be?
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, it will—it will probably be compounded by speculation, that in situations like this, organizations—companies like Glencore get on top of it, and they increase the price even further through speculation.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain what that company is, I mean, what they do.
CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It’s the second largest commodity trading company in the world after Cargill, and they’re involved in mining and buying and selling agricultural commodities like wheat and soy. So, what that will mean in the Global South is that people, such as Egyptians, who pay 40 percent of—the average Egyptian pays 40 percent of their wages in food, they’re going to be pressed to the wall. And so, we’re going to see, as we saw in 2008 and to some extent in last year, probably more food riots, more protests. And at first it won’t look like it’s about climate change. You know, it’ll be about some kleptocratic president. It’ll be, you know, Christians and Muslims fighting each other in northern Nigeria. And it’s not to say that these conflicts are reducible to climate change, but they are exacerbated by climate change.
And the frightening thing is that one of the only institutions in the U.S. that seems to think about this is the Pentagon. And they don’t—you know, their job is to fight wars and prepare for wars. So they see this coming, and they are preparing for open-ended counterinsurgency on a global scale indefinitely. To their credit, they also say, you know, ultimately, we can’t handle this. If there is an appropriate policy from civilian leaders, who knows how civilization will cope with the next century and climate change kicking in very readily? But right now, the preparations are for policing this crisis. And that’s not going to help at all. That’s going to exacerbate it.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Jeff Masters at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, climatologist with—a meteorologist with Weather Underground. Can you predict for us what’s going to happen this summer? And also, just sticking with this issue, since the way people understand the world is so often through the media—their own experience going outside experiencing the extreme weather, but then watching on television—is there discussion among climatologists to start raising this issue? Is there a push of underground weathermen to talk about this?
JEFF MASTERS: Right now, we’ve got moderate to severe to extreme drought over a large portion of the grain-producing area of the U.S., from Kansas into Missouri, Illinois, Indiana. And it’s only the early part of July. The forecast is for continued very hot weather at least for the next two weeks. And the way things are going, it wouldn’t be any surprise to me to see a sharp reduction in the American grain harvest because of drought this year. We’re looking at a situation similar to 1988, which was a $70 billion disaster in the U.S. because of the drought. Or, if you look back in the 1930s, this weather reminds me a lot of what we saw in some of those Dust Bowl years. So, a big concern. Drought, going forward, is going to be a huge issue in the U.S., and it is going to impact food prices, I think.
As far as your second question, can you ask that again? I’m not sure I caught quite the gist of what you were asking.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a discussion among meteorologists—is there a discussion among meteorologists to start talking about climate change?
JEFF MASTERS: It’s been an ongoing discussion for a long time, sure. I mean, I’m on the board of advisers for a couple of groups that talk about climate change, and we’re certainly trying to get the word out. And we’ve got a lot of people out there giving talks at the local level. And we’re trying to get, of course, as much media exposure as we can. So, it’s a big uphill struggle, though, because there’s a lot of disinformation being put out there by companies whose profits are hurt by climate change awareness. So, it remains to be seen. I think, well, the weather we’re seeing now is probably ultimately what’s going to change people’s minds, when they see in their own experience that, hey, you know, we’re seeing unprecedented sorts of heat and drought and maybe extreme, violent storms, too. That’s probably what’s going to eventually turn the tide.
AMY GOODMAN: Is that oil company pressure in the corporate media, for example, the advertisers?
JEFF MASTERS: Well, yeah, absolutely. The oil companies have to protect profits by law, so of course they’re going to challenge any science which says that there’s global warming.
AMY GOODMAN: And do TV climatologists feel that direct pressure, being told, "Don’t raise these issues. You know, stick to the temperature, stick to the records and the record breaking, but don’t talk about what’s behind it all"?
JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, it depends on the particular meteorologist and particular station, but, yeah, of course, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure. You get a lot of blowback when you start talking about these issues. You get a lot of angry people writing you. Sometimes it may be an astroturf-type issue, where there is paid people out there that are writing letters and, you know, putting pressure on people not to talk about climate change. But there is also a lot of genuine confusion among people, and a lot of people feel very passionately that climate change is not an issue. And they’re being swayed by some of these very powerful media campaigns being waged by the oil companies.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Jeff Masters, who is with Weather Underground; Suzanne Goldenberg U.S. environment correspondent of The Guardian, just came back from reporting on the forest fires in Colorado. Thanks so much to Christian Parenti. His latest book is just coming out in paperback this next week, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.