Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Climatological Cliff Looms Largest

The fiscal cliff looks like a molehill from here

While President Obama appears to be meeting the lowest possible expectations in the assault on the fiscal cliff, I find myself more preoccupied by the climatological, environmental and ecological cliff we are stumbling towards. And out of my reverie has materialized the number one quadrillion.

That's 1,000 trillion.

In dollars, that's almost 700 times the U.S. GNP. That's more than 10 times the total assets--dollars, property and equipment--held by U.S. businesses, corporations and households. In other words, it has taken all of us, for however long we've been here in the United States, to work for however long it took (at a tremendous cost to many of us and to many of those who came before us) to create together about $100 trillion worth of wealth (however unequally it might be distributed).

These numbers are not my invention, I borrowed them (and perhaps fudged them a bit) from a website that goes by the name of "U.S. National Debt Clock-Real Time." The question is not whether or not the statistics I am parading by here are damn lies or otherwise, the question is from what swamp bubbled the one quadrillion that so mesmerizes me. And, yes, I am calling that one quadrillion "dollars."

The starting point of my fugue: How much damage done by Hurricane Sandy?

About $50 billion, or so, the number plucked from a Forbes magazine article. Okay. The U.S. economy can cover that loss easily. And, as the Forbes story makes clear, the labor and materials invested in the recovery should boost the economy; never mind that the cost of the emotional damage suffered by Americans who lost somebody or something isn't reckoned with in the article.

The Forbes story also reviews the cost of other damaging hurricanes. The total from a  daycare school's worth of hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Andrew, Irene and others between 1992 and now is probably north of a half-trillion dollars. But if these hurricanes came more powerfully or more often than they might have without all the environmental damage that preceded them, what is the true cost of all the damage that created and had to precede those stronger and more frequent storms?

What is that cost when it is added to all the other damage from droughts and forest fires and oil spills and air pollution and oceanic dead zones that we have caused, created or amplified? What is the cost in suffering and illness and death and contaminated and compromised food supply and poisoned water and air? How does the damage from every little storm and every wounded life add to that total?

Because whatever that total is, that's probably about what it is going to cost to fix the damage. So if the number one quadrillion dollars is the total (and it is very likely an order of magnitude or two higher) than that means it will cost us everything we own and all the work that we do for the next 40 or so years to fix the damage we have done. That's if the number is one quadrillion and not two or eight or higher. And while we are trying to fix the damage, the situation will be getting worse.

The only bright spot here is that if we start the work now some of us will one day contemplate a brighter future. But a perspective to add as we plunge into the swamp at the base of the fiscal cliff is this: The notion of the national debt, which appears to be the root cause of Republican angst, is such a tiny part of our portion of the true global (environmental) debt (damage), such a small hill, that President Obama and both his allies and his adversaries ought to be able to clear it in a single bound.

And so ends my reverie, on a day when the cliff that concerns me is climatological.


  1. Nice thought-track Jeff. I like the way you've translated apples to oranges so it can be discussed as the same forum from different angles. I guess I've always felt like the natural world is priceless, so it takes precedence over finance and greed, but you've done a nice job making a more practical argument.

  2. Well, here's the thing, KP--for better or worse, human beings have been modifying (transforming, corrupting) the earth, water and sky for 10,000 years and every one of those modifications has required real effort. In the matter of climate change, the transformations have been particularly damaging and dangerous, but those transformations have required the use of labor, materials and equipment. They have a market value.

    Since we can't leave the world the way it is now without suffering the consequences, estimating the monetary value of the grand and unintentional engineering project that got us here ought to give us an idea of how much effort it will take to get us out. And once we see the price tag, we may also grasp how far up the creek we have managed to get.

    The natural world, if such a place exists, is indeed priceless. But the cultural transformation it will take to return it to a sustainable state, if that happens, will also be a thing of incomparable value, far exceeding what we will have to invest to make things right. That transformation will be the crowning achievement of a global human community.

  3. The other aspect of the environment and fiscal cliff relationship is human labor vs fossil fuels and federal projects. The CCC was a great example of injecting money into the economy to improve public parks and help money flow to willing workers needing a means of living in a dignified fashion that also helped build confidence and leadership. Unfortunately, I only see these things at community levels (ie - http://gtechstrategies.org/ in Pittsburgh) and not at the federal level where these arguments take place.

  4. Hey, KP. I checked out G Tech. It looks like useful skill development and job creation at the grassroots, indeed. But chances are that there is some federal money involved--perhaps block grant money that G-Tech has tapped, or stimulus funds, or green energy money. The truth is that the feds can't do much because Republicans can block almost everything. But the Obama administration has managed to get some money into programs like that. Something as big and national as CCC would be great, of course, but no one could get a program that comprehensive through this Congress. If it were possible there'd be something similar for national infrastructure.

    Instead we end up with imaginative job training and employment programs that operate on the less visible edges. But HHS has something that trains low-income people in health career skills and helps with job placement. A list of local grantees is available here: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/resource-library/search?type[3103]=3103#?area=2400&ajax=1