"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Very soon the United States political system will be forced to confront the issue of global climate change. As reported this month in a "Summary for Policymakers" issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the "warming of the climate is unequivocal" and there is "very high confidence" that this climate change is caused by human activity.1
This document makes crystal clear that climate change inevitably will cause great damage. As one of the authors puts it in an on-line discussion, between now and 2100 we will see "more of what we already have signs of, but much bigger: more severe and long lasting droughts, heat waves and wild fires, especially in S[outh] W[est] U.S. Risk of bigger and more intense hurricanes. Heavier rainfalls. Heavier dumps of snow episodically. More humidity..."2
A rough and ready translation of this is that the costs of climate change will take three distinct forms. The first will be the need to deal with the serious dislocations caused by global warming. There will be an increasing number of Katrina type clean-ups, as well as the need to pay for the evacuation and resettlement of entire communities that find their cities and towns under rising water. Second, very large expenditures will be required to develop alternative energy technologies to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gases. Third, individuals now working in industries that utilize polluting technologies will have to be retrained and supported in transition to new occupations. Obviously, in combination these costs will be staggering.
However, the economic elite in this country – the people who principally provide the funding for political campaigns and therefore set our political agenda – have been in a state of denial in the face of this coming crisis. As recently reported in The New York Times, a survey of 101 CEO's revealed that only 4 percent were "extremely concerned" and another 14 percent "somewhat concerned" by the economic implications of global warming.3 To appreciate the extent to which the CEO's are out of touch with this problem compared to the general population, a survey of first year students in four year colleges and universities found that 77.0 percent agreed that "the federal government is not doing enough to control environmental pollution."4
Even among those few CEO's who have gotten the message that global warming is a serious problem, there has been an inadequate response. As a case in point, the Electric Power Research Institute, the utility industry's think tank, holds out the possibility that by the year 2030 greenhouse emissions could be reduced to the levels that prevailed in 1990. To pay for the research to develop new environmentally-friendly technologies, this institute would raise consumers' electricity rates by $2 billion a year. Private investors, they argue, would then "be willing to finance deployment of the technologies, because they could earn an attractive profit."5 In short, consumers pay for the environmental clean-up, but firms profit. In this scheme, the adjustment costs associated with climate change are placed squarely on the backs of ordinary citizens.
Obviously it is better for the business community to begin to acknowledge the problem of global warming than to ignore it. But industry's determination to avoid financial responsibility is simply unreasonable. And its single-minded focus on new technologies entirely overlooks the increased likelihood of catastrophic natural disasters and thus is at best short-sighted. With an environmental change this vast, simple common sense suggests that all segments of society will have to share in addressing the problem.
With the 2006 election and the shift in the control of Congress to the Democrats, it might be thought that a more fair and balanced approach to the problem could be expected. But with next to nothing done to reduce the dependence by all politicians on big money donations, the corporate sector still remains the dominant voice in Congressional policy deliberations. For that reason the outlook for an effective and fair approach to environmental policy is bleak. Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald report in The Washington Post that industry lobbyists are "not too worried" about legislation that Congress might pass concerning the environment, because "they do not think the House or the Senate can pass anything too stringent, much less override a Bush veto."6
At root the problem here is that private funders provide the money needed for successful political careers. Those funders have been reluctant to address the issue of global warming, and when they have done so their plans are one-sided, benefiting themselves. Obviously the urgency of climate change means that we cannot wait until there is a publicly-financed Congress to tackle the problem. What we must do is both keep up the pressure for good environmental legislation and argue against the one-sided and incomplete programs that are likely to emerge from our corporate-responsive Congress. And while doing so, we can bolster the already strong case that a system of clean elections is the only way to ensure that the biases of wealth do not continue to distort environmental policy.
1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers (Geneva: IPCC Secretariat, 2007), p. 4, 3.
2. Kevin Tremberth, "Science: Global Warming and the Government," The Washington Post, February 13, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
3. Floyd Norris, "Not Much Market for Worry Beads in the Executive Suites," The New York Times, January 27, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com.
4. John H. Pryor et. al. The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute: University of California, Los Angeles, 2006), p. 40.
5. Jeffrey Ball, "Climate Change's Cold Economics," The Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2007, http://online.wsj.com.
on Warming," The Washington Post, January 23, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com.