Heeding Hurricane Cassandra

It’s irrational, in light of Hurricane Sandy, not to take action when it comes to climate change.

Hurricane Sandy - known as the 'frankenstorm' - has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in the USA alone [EPA]
Hurricane Sandy - known as the 'frankenstorm' - has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in the USA alone [EPA]

In any rational world, Hurricane Sandy (the diminutive for Cassandra) would be a major wake-up call for America. But Cassandra was not heeded when she foretold the downfall of Troy. Why should Sandy fare any better? Because make no mistake, global warming is very much about the downfall of the American empire, ensured as it is by the oligarchs and oligopolies that rule over it, whose interests clash fundamentally with the vast majority of the American people. That rule is mostly invisible, the same way that water is invisible to fish, and it most often expresses itself in terms of what we don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t think about, because the powers that be prefer to have things remain as they are, and prefer not to have us thinking about how things might be otherwise.

Which is why, for example, in the month before Sandy hit, the presidential debates completely ignored the issue of climate change, for the first time since 1984 (indeed, the two candidates actually argued who would do more to increase domestic fossil fuel production – that is, which would do more to make the problem worse). Then, Sandy vividly reminded us just how foolish that all was – particularly given how much more pressing the climate change problem has become.

It used to be customary, even necessary to preface any discussion of extreme weather and global warming with the caveat that of course no single weather event can be causally linked to climate change. But the sheer quantity of extreme weather stories – tornadoes early this spring, wildfires this summer – has rendered that caveat moot, particularly in North America, the continent where extreme weather events have risen the most rapidly since 1980, according to a new report from global reinsurance giant Munich Re.

Weather-related disasters increased even more rapidly: “The study shows a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades, compared with an increase factor of 4 in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, 2 in Europe and 1.5 in South America.” With change that dramatic, who cares that climate change doesn’t cause individual weather events, but “only” loads the dice? By now, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded”, as Leonard Cohen sang. The question is: What are we going to do about?

Sandy wasn’t just a hurricane, after all, but a confluence of a hurricane with a cold front from California, after being driven inland by a high-pressure system near Greenland. It was thus transformed from hurricane to nor’easter – a hurricane plus blizzard at its transformation point – as if it were the meteorological equivalent of a centaur, griffin or sphinx; the very embodiment of how a changing climate alters, fuses and confuses the very templates out of which weather is made.

Scientists aren’t yet ready to confirm this description – in part because it’s describing what’s still a very rare phenomenon in weather systems flooded with chaotic variations. But something somewhat similar happened with Ike, and besides, there are two other well-established links between climate change and the high degree of damage done by Sandy: The rising sea-level – a full foot above levels a century ago – which substantially increased the amount of coastal flooding damage, and the increased energy available for hurricanes to feed on and grow off of, in the form of warming ocean temperatures, which helped make Sandy, a once-rare late-season hurricane, such a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Imperial overstretch = Environmental overstretch

The history of world empires is a history of strikingly similar stories – rise, fall, rise, fall, rise, fall – and it always ends the same. Environmental problems always play some part, if for no other reason than because empires are built, ultimately, on the expanded exploitation of the environment, an exploitation that inevitably wears thin over time. Imperial overstretch is environmental overstretch, always and inevitably, at least in part. What makes it different this time is two-fold: First, that the process of imperial self-destruction is so well understood in advance, far better than ever before, and second, that it affects the whole planet, and steals possibility from countless future generations, altering the global environment for each and every one of us.

Another thing that characterises imperial decline and fall is the concentration of power in the hands of clashing, insular elites, as the broader populace is left increasingly at the mercy of an ever-crueller fate. Different empires have different elite gangs with different rationales – America’s, paradoxically, is the “free market” rationale, used to defend fiercely anti-competitive cartels (oligopolies) dominating finance, health insurance, fossil fuel production, military contracting, etc.

Four years ago, the presidential election ended amidst the ongoing panic of America’s greatest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression, the fruits of undoing almost all the regulations put in place after that long-ago catastrophe. Although Republicans have lead the way in rolling back these regulations over the long haul, turning deregulation into a religion, Democrats have joined in enthusiastically in the era of neoliberal dominance ushered in by Bill Clinton. Even the financial crisis of four years ago has done nothing to change that. Which is why Wall Street has recovered so rapidly, with barely a hint of criminal prosecutions, while Obama’s recovery programme for America as a whole was so under-sized – and thus limited in its effectiveness – that millions still remain out of work, thereby opening the door to false charges that it only made things work.

Similarly, Obama’s embrace of conservative healthcare reform – based on the Heritage Foundation plan developed to counter Clinton’s initiative in his first two years – was bitterly opposed by Republicans, but promised 20 million new customers for the insurance companies and other special interests that make US healthcare twice as expensive per capita as anywhere else in the world. It was, in short, a conservative’s paradise – if only a conservative Republican had been responsible for putting it in place, which Romney might well have done if he’d been elected president in 2008.

The operative logic was laid out by Thomas Ferguson in his 1995 book, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems, and was briefly summarised by him in a recent article:

“Big Money’s most significant impact on politics is certainly not to deliver elections to the highest bidders. Instead it is to cement parties, candidates, and campaigns into the narrow range of issues that are acceptable to big donors. The basis of the ‘Golden Rule’ in politics derives from the simple fact that running for major office in the US is fabulously expensive. In the absence of large scale social movements, only political positions that can be financed can be presented to voters. On issues on which all major investors agree (think of the now famous 1 percent), no party competition at all takes place, even if everyone knows that heavy majorities of voters want something else.”

On issue after issue, Obama’s politics hue remarkably close to the oligopoly corporate consensus – a fact that GOP leaders find endlessly frustrating – not because they hate his policies (sometimes they actually do), but because he got there first. And, yet, there isn’t always a consensus to be had. That’s the underlying problem with climate change: It’s not just workers and consumers getting harmed, it’s other businesses as well. Globally, the green energy sector is booming, but politically, particularly in the US, it remains pathetically small and powerless compared to Big Oil and Big Coal. There is a potential anti-fossil fuel alliance to be formed – their pieces are all there, but the closeness of interests and regular interactions that favour close-knit cartels is not.

Megastorms like Sandy carry with them the possibility of changing that, altering the background organisational political calculus – not all at once, in a blinding flash, but enough, incrementally, to put climate change back on the national agenda, and to actually get something done about it.

Altering the background calculus

The possibility of altering that background calculus is perhaps the most illuminating lens through which to view the actions of three prominent political actors in the wake of Sandy: Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie (Republican), Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo (Democrat), and Michael Bloomberg (Independent), Mayor of New York.

First, consider Christie, who drew startled glances across the political spectrum, largely for simply reverting to the pre-Obama norm in which state governors tend to cultivate friendly relationships with the President, regardless of party, for the benefit of the citizens of their state. Christie had previously embodied the anti-Obama norm, most dramatically by cancelling a mammoth construction project for a much-needed second transit tunnel to New York, just to spite Obama’s stimulus programme, and build the GOP’s narrative against it. His sudden reversion to pre-Obama norms may reflect nothing deeper than individual political calculus, but even so, it could point to something more – particularly on the state and local levels.

Leading to something more – an altered landscape of possibilities – was clearly on Andrew Cuomo’s mind, when he sought to draw the obvious connection between Sandy and climate change, without using the phrase itself and drawing knee-jerk neanderthal attacks.

“I’m hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area, but use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter. There have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality,” said Cuomo. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns; we have an old infrastructure, we have old systems. That is not a good combination and that is one of the lessons I will take from this, personally.”

By refocusing on infrastructure and building for the future, Cuomo signals one approach where progress can be made. And, indeed, it’s front where some progress has already occurred. Indeed, while New York’s infrastructure as a whole is old, its newer infrastructure does reflect widespread and growing efforts to build green at the state and local levels where fossil fuel money is less powerful.

Bloomberg took note of this in his op-ed endorsing Obama:

“Here in New York, our comprehensive sustainability plan – PlaNYC – has helped allow us to cut our carbon footprint by 16 percent in just five years, which is the equivalent of eliminating the carbon footprint of a city twice the size of Seattle. Through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group – a partnership among many of the world’s largest cities – local governments are taking action where national governments are not.”

Clearly, strengthening, expanding and multiplying these efforts represents one way of making progress in the current political reality – while also planting seeds for the creation of a new reality. It’s not enough, Bloomberg rightly notes – “But we can’t do it alone. We need leadership from the White House” – which is why he goes on to endorse Obama.

But what I found most striking came in the paragraph preceding the one above, where Bloomberg writes:

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Probability and risk

What Bloomberg is saying here is just common sense – part of any leader’s job is risk avoidance. You don’t have to be 100 percent certain that something bad is going to happen. Mathematically, a 100 percent certainty of a 10 percent loss and a 10 percent certainty of a 100 percent loss are identical. Mere uncertainty is not a reason for inaction – particularly if delaying action increases the risks along with the costs of corrective action.

Dick Cheney articulated a twisted a version of this principle, as Ron Suskind described in his book, The One Percent Doctrine:

“If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis… It’s about our response.”

According to Suskind, it became “a standard of action that would frame events and responses from the administration for years to come”. The problem was, the Bush administration repeatedly invented threats where they did not exist – threats that not only had no evidence to support them, but that made no sense, such as the idea that Saddam Hussein would give WMDs to his ideological enemies. It’s one thing to take a 1 percent chance seriously, but a minus 1 percent chance? Bush/Cheney also routinely ignored the very real costs of the actions they fixated on – actions that could generate bigger threats than the ones they were intended to counter. 

“The history of world empires is a history of strikingly similar stories – rise, fall, rise, fall, rise, fall – and it always ends the same.”

Still, the underlying principle was sound, however perverted Bush/Cheney’s application may have been: Small chances of large disasters have to be taken seriously. So why doesn’t the same logic apply to global warming? As science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document in their book, Merchants of Doubt, the fossil fuel establishment adopted a strategy first perfected by the tobacco industry, aimed at creating an aura of public doubt where none actually existed in the science,

But this strategy only makes sense for the climate change debate if one ignores the probabilistic approach to risk prevention – the risk-averse, conservative approach, from a risk-management point of view, that Bloomberg articulated in his endorsement of Obama. The fact that this point of view almost never surfaces in the climate change debate, but easily prevailed in the Bush/Cheney war on terror, is one more example of how money influences politics in Tom Ferguson’s model: Even the most obvious practical arguments never see the light of day without someone willing to fund them. So the fact that a billionaire policy philanthropist made this argument – however briefly – in his own voice is a hopeful harbinger that some real change in the debate may be at hand.

This is why the re-election of Barack Obama matters, most crucially for the issue of climate change. It’s not that his record or his campaign are particularly inspiring. In fact, quite the opposite. But halfway through his first term, Obama was just as disappointing to gay and lesbian activists, and they found a way to turn that around by changing the political environment. That’s the best anyone can hope for from Obama in a second term – and you’re deluding yourself if you think he offers anything more. But it’s far, far better than what can be hoped for from Romney. And with the pace of climate change symptoms accelerating ever more rapidly now, four years is much too long to wait to try again.

As I said in the beginning, in any rational world, Hurricane Sandy – Cassandra – would be a major wake-up call for America. But Cassandra never lived in a rational world – and neither do we, unless we make it so.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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