“It is ironic that an event so re­lated to cli­mate change would oc­cur in a state that is home to so many cli­mat­e­change de­niers – and where the econ­omy de­pends so heav­ily on the fos­sil fu­els that drive global warm­ing”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - Pre­ven­tive col­lec­tive ac­tion needed to mit­i­gate im­pact of cli­mate change

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey has left in its wake up­ended lives and enor­mous prop­erty dam­age, es­ti­mated by some at $150-180 bln. But the rains that in­un­dated the Texas coast for the bet­ter part of a week, and the hur­ri­cane that is about to hit South Florida, also raise deep ques­tions about the United States’ eco­nomic sys­tem and pol­i­tics.

It is ironic, of course, that an event so re­lated to cli­mate change would oc­cur in a state that is home to so many cli­mate-change de­niers – and where the econ­omy de­pends so heav­ily on the fos­sil fu­els that drive global warm­ing. Of course, no par­tic­u­lar cli­mate event can be di­rectly re­lated to the in­crease in green­house gases in the at­mos­phere. But sci­en­tists have long pre­dicted that such in­creases would boost not only av­er­age tem­per­a­tures, but also weather vari­abil­ity – and es­pe­cially the oc­cur­rence of ex­treme events such as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

As the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change con­cluded sev­eral years ago, “There is ev­i­dence that some ex­tremes have changed as a re­sult of an­thro­pogenic in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing in­creases in at­mo­spheric con­cen­tra­tions of green­house gases.” As­tro­physi­cist Adam Frank suc­cinctly ex­plained: “greater warmth means more mois­ture in the air which means stronger pre­cip­i­ta­tion.”

To be sure, Hous­ton and Texas could not have done much by them­selves about the in­crease in green­house gases, though they could have taken a more ac­tive role in push­ing for strong cli­mate poli­cies. But lo­cal and state author­i­ties could have done a far bet­ter job pre­par­ing for such events, which hit the area with some fre­quency.

In re­spond­ing to the hur­ri­cane – and in fund­ing some of the re­pair – ev­ery­one turns to govern­ment, just as they did in the af­ter­math of the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis. Again, it is ironic that this is now oc­cur­ring in a part of the coun­try where govern­ment and col­lec­tive ac­tion are so fre­quently re­buked. It was no less ironic when the ti­tans of US banking, hav­ing preached the ne­olib­eral gospel of down­siz­ing govern­ment and elim­i­nat­ing reg­u­la­tions that pro­scribed some of their most dan­ger­ous and anti-so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, turned to govern­ment in their moment of need.

There is an ob­vi­ous les­son to be learned from such episodes: mar­kets on their own are in­ca­pable of pro­vid­ing the pro­tec­tion that so­ci­eties need. When mar­kets fail, as they of­ten do, col­lec­tive ac­tion be­comes im­per­a­tive.

And, as with fi­nan­cial crises, there is a need for pre­ven­tive col­lec­tive ac­tion to mit­i­gate the im­pact of cli­mate change. That means en­sur­ing that build­ings and in­fra­struc­ture are con­structed to with­stand ex­treme events, and are not lo­cated in ar­eas that are most vul­ner­a­ble to se­vere dam­age. It also means pro­tect­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sys­tems, par­tic­u­larly wet­lands, which can play an im­por­tant role in ab­sorb­ing the im­pact of storms. It means elim­i­nat­ing the risk that a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter could lead to the dis­charge of dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals, as hap­pened in Hous­ton. And it means hav­ing in place ad­e­quate re­sponse plans, in­clud­ing for evac­u­a­tion.

Ef­fec­tive govern­ment in­vest­ments and strong reg­u­la­tions are needed to en­sure each of th­ese out­comes, re­gard­less of the pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal cul­ture in Texas and else­where. With­out ad­e­quate reg­u­la­tions, in­di­vid­u­als and firms have no in­cen­tive to take ad­e­quate pre­cau­tions, be­cause they know that much of the cost of ex­treme events will be borne by oth­ers. With­out ad­e­quate pub­lic plan­ning and reg­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment, flood­ing will be worse. With­out dis­as­ter plan­ning and ad­e­quate fund­ing, any city can be caught in the dilemma in which Hous­ton found it­self: if it does not or­der an evac­u­a­tion, many will die; but if it does or­der an evac­u­a­tion, peo­ple will die in the en­su­ing chaos, and snarled traf­fic will pre­vent peo­ple from get­ting out.

Amer­ica and the world are pay­ing a high price for de­vo­tion to the ex­treme anti-govern­ment ide­ol­ogy em­braced by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his Repub­li­can Party. The world is pay­ing, be­cause cu­mu­la­tive US green­house-gas emis­sions are greater than those from any other coun­try; even to­day, the US is one of the world’s lead­ers in per capita green­house­gas emis­sions. But Amer­ica is pay­ing a high price as well: other coun­tries, even poor de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, like Haiti and Ecuador, seem to have learned (of­ten at great ex­pense and only af­ter some huge calami­ties) how to man­age nat­u­ral dis­as­ters bet­ter.

Af­ter the de­struc­tion of New Or­leans by Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, the shut­down of much of New York City by Sandy in 2012, the dev­as­ta­tion wrought on Texas by Har­vey, and now Irma pum­mel­ing Florida, the US can and should do bet­ter. It has the re­sources and skills to an­a­lyse th­ese com­plex events and their con­se­quences, and to for­mu­late and im­ple­ment reg­u­la­tions and in­vest­ment pro­grammes that mit­i­gate the ad­verse ef­fects on lives and prop­erty.

What Amer­ica doesn’t have is a co­her­ent view of govern­ment by those on the right, who, work­ing with spe­cial in­ter­ests that ben­e­fit from their ex­treme poli­cies, con­tinue to speak out of both sides of their mouth. Be­fore a cri­sis, they re­sist reg­u­la­tions and op­pose govern­ment in­vest­ment and plan­ning; af­ter­wards, they de­mand – and re­ceive – bil­lions of dol­lars to com­pen­sate them for their losses, even those that could eas­ily have been pre­vented.

One can only hope that Amer­ica, and other coun­tries, will not need more nat­u­ral per­sua­sion be­fore tak­ing to heart the les­sons of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

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