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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

More Thoughts on Climate Change

The Daily Escape:

Frenchman Bay, viewed from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia NP, ME – 2019 photo by pmek99. Note the cruise ships lining up to visit Bar Harbor.

Following up on our post about climate change, many responded by attacking the premise that climate change is happening or, that it is due to human causes.

There have always been deniers. For example, a survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Global Project in partnership with the Guardian, found that 13% of Americans believe that humans are not at all responsible for climate change. Another 5% of Americans don’t even believe the climate is changing. So, 18% think we shouldn’t worry about climate change.

Then again, 20% believe that extraterrestrials live amongst us.

Wrongo isn’t sure that we are focused correctly when we talk about climate change. It’s not the planet that’s in trouble, its humans. Humans thrive within a specific range of availability of water, air, and food, as do all animals. If one of the critical inputs is compromised, humans will fail to thrive, our habitable locations will shrink, and the human population will also shrink. The planet will survive.

For much of human history, humans have lived in hotter, dryer locations. They also survived in colder places, and in both, were able to live hard, but reasonably happy lives. Do we want to regress to that?

Peak human experience requires surpluses of food and livable space if the population is to grow. How can that happen on an overpopulated, resource-constrained planet?

Focus on this: Global population is projected to reach approximately 10.9 billion by 2100. If that is true, we will require 10X today’s electricity output by 2100. When you think about it, even if today, we had already reached the (unrealistic) level of 50% of power sourced from renewables, that would equal only 5% of the power we will need 100 years from now.

So, where will all that energy come from? Can Silicon Valley invent a different form of electric power generation? Will the world go fully into nuclear power?

The same is true for water. Where will the increased water resources come from? Desalination?

Suppose there is no climate change. We are still facing peak oil and peak other resources. We live on a finite Earth. Think about energy: We’re in a world of expanding energy demand. This will mean substantial shortages in the medium-term, which means immense and unavoidable energy price increases.

Politically, the higher prices should be used to defray the energy costs of the majority of the population that isn’t rich enough to pay them. Doing that will take a different economic system than we have today.

Can deniers also wish these problems away?

  • We live in a world where the big polluters, corporations, are dedicated to maximizing short term returns for a relatively few wealthy beneficiaries.
  • We still live in a Neoliberal world where government works for the few, where government largess continually transfers income to the wealthy, while our infrastructure is allowed to decay.
  • We still live in a world where economic growth cannot be sustained forever without collapse.

It will take a global mobilization that is massive, disruptive and smart to deal with the resources constraint, even if there wasn’t any climate change. What we really lack is the SOCIAL technology to mobilize corporations and politicians to bring about change.

Concern about the twin problems of finite resources and climate change hasn’t brought about any particular political, social or spiritual commitment on the part of the power elites in finance, corporations or politics.

For all of our superiority at the apex of the animal kingdom, we seem unwilling to solve what surely lies ahead. That’s why we see Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old scolding world leaders, with 4 million kids standing behind her. To adapt, we will require a Manhattan Project-level of effort, but we’ll have to do all that work in the face of depleted resources, an unstable climate, and a contracting economy.

We have choices. We can continue as we are, or we can stop now, take a moment to reassess, and then put ourselves on an alternative path, as the younger generation says we must.

Thunberg challenges us to stop being selfish, to care about the future, to care about living things and recognize that we are all part of the natural world, and that our commitment to continuing economic growth is killing the planet.

We should listen, organize, and act.

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Wake Up Call – Climate Edition, September 23, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Greenland shows its melting glaciers – September 14, 2019 photo by Steve Mueller. Mueller gives a personal testimony, describing similar flights over Greenland in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s when ice & snow covered most of it. Sadly, that’s no longer true today.

Wrongo rarely writes about climate change, because he’s had very little hope that the world will act to solve, or delay the reality in front of us.

Until now.

There is something very hopeful when young people around the globe are calling out those in power and calling out the rest of us who have exacerbated the warming problem through our commitment to economic growth at any price. That price includes income inequality and the ever-accelerating use of our planet’s resources to fuel that economic growth.

The emergence of young people as activists adds a different dimension to the argument. They are worried about what kind of world we’re leaving them. The movement is personified by the 16-year-old Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. On Monday, she spoke to the UN Climate Change Summit, and did not mince words. She implored world leaders to act urgently:

“I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Anger is an energysaid the Sex Pistols in 1972. And we’re seeing both anger and all of its kinetic energy on display by these kids. It’s reminiscent of teenagers in the 1960s and 1970’s in the US, first with the Civil Rights movement, and later, with less effect, in the Vietnam War protests.

Time will tell if this social movement ends up helping to create big policy change, or if it’s just another footnote, a bit like Occupy Wall Street. But, It’s given Wrongo some hope that it is still possible to battle against entrenched money interests, at least on the question of climate change.

Returning to the climate consequences as shown in Steve Mueller’s photo, The Economist’s cover story this week is about climate. They point out that temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as fast as the global average:

When floating sea ice vanishes, it exposes deep blue waters, which absorb more solar energy than the white ice does. In turn, this speeds up melting: it’s a classic positive-feedback loop. The ice recedes to an annual minimum extent every September. The record low was set in 2012.

Some sceptics point to cold snaps in North America as evidence that concern about global warming is overblown. They should be told that such days are caused by chilly air escaping polar latitudes. Which in itself, may be another consequence of a warming Arctic.

A good analogy is the problem supertankers face if they try to make a U-turn. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and time to overcome the ship’s momentum, to slow the tanker from cruising speed to a point where a u-turn can begin.

For climate change, we must overcome our momentum, reversing how we create energy, how we manufacture our goods, how we travel, how we heat and cool our homes, and how we provision our foods.

The next challenge is if this can be done while continuing to expand the global economy, keeping in mind that the global population may be 50% larger by 2100.

Back in corporate life, Wrongo used to talk about things that could be fixed “If your life depended on it” and those that couldn’t be fixed even if your life did depend on it.

If the problem can be fixed if your life depended on it, you fix it or die, no excuses. This is where we are today. Maybe it’s not our lives that depend on it,  it’s those of our grandchildren. They are counting on us to rise up now, in a global movement to make change.

Wake up America! The kids couldn’t be clearer:  They do not want pats on the head, where we tell them how “inspiring” they are.

For Boomers and Millennials, the climate problems posed in the second half of the 21st century can still seem largely hypothetical. But for those born after 2000 like Greta Thunberg, and 2.6 billion others, it’s more like half their lives. This gives a huge moral weight to their demands.

But it will take more than political activism. The kids want our leadership, our votes, and most importantly, our action to confront this crisis.

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Taxes Aren’t Theft

The Daily Escape:

Humpback Whale, Tonga – Photo by Rita Kluge

Joseph Stieglitz has an op-ed in the NYT about saving capitalism from itself. He wants to re-brand capitalism as “progressive capitalism”: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society….The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.”

America has been debating the role of capitalism in our society since our beginnings. In 1790, John Adams published the Discourses on Davila in which he said that entrenched economic inequality would create a political oligarchy in America similar to what had already occurred in Europe.

The problem isn’t inequality. We’ve survived a permanent underclass, but until recently, it has been a statistical minority. But, we won’t survive today’s continuing erosion of the middle class. Stieglitz says:

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.”

He calls for:

“…a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.”

Call it progressive capitalism, capitalism plus, democratic capitalism, or whatever you want. At the core of any reform of capitalism is less corporate control over the levers of power, and a redistribution of wealth. Along with the growth in economic inequality and political impotence, so grows the myth propagated by the ultra-rich that higher taxes are a public theft of their hard earned fortunes, and are a threat to their personal freedoms.

Let’s spend a minute on the difference between positive and negative rights.

In the simplest terms, negative rights (most of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) protect us from the government. They tell us what the government can’t do. The Constitution was designed as primarily a negative rights document, to maximize our individual liberty, and to protect us from the government interfering in our lives. They are most helpful to people whose rights are already protected.

Positive rights are different. They include things like the right to an education, and in some countries, the right to healthcare. Most of us define freedom as: freedom from hunger, freedom from ignorance, freedom from exploitation, freedom from poverty, freedom from hopelessness and despair. Very few positive rights are enumerated in the Constitution, with the exception of the right to have the government protect private property.

Today, if there’s one enduring myth that drives US politics, it is the myth that the rich have earned their reward, through nothing but their own hard work and savvy. The rich want no income redistribution, which they call “socialism”, just as the fat cats said in this cartoon from 1912:

The Republicans in the 1930s called FDR a socialist. Now, as we are thinking about a New Deal 2.0, today’s Republicans want to again brand all Democrats as socialists.

Corporations and the 1% ignore how much they are helped by a system designed by them, and for them. They are contemptuous of government and public authority, which they say act as agents of the poor, attempting to extort the rich.

They forget that our government facilitates and protects their wealth. If not for the many Federal agencies that write regulations favorable to industry, the Federal Reserve, protectors of the banking industry along with others, there would be a lot less wealth for corporations and the 1% to aggregate.

Therefore, they should pay the most.

And remember, rural electrification was a federal project under FDR. The dams on the Columbia River made irrigation possible, opening up western lands to agriculture. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was the Green New Deal of its time, and was the basis for development of a modern Southeastern US. The railroads that opened up the West relied on government property provided to private companies (redistribution?) to develop.

Let’s decide to reform capitalism. First, by making it responsive to the positive rights that average Americans are longing for. Second, paying for that with much high taxes on corporations. If the loopholes created by savvy corporate tax lawyers remain on the books, let’s create a stiff Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for corporations.

Just like the AMT that Wrongo has had to pay for lo, these many years.

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We Need a New New Deal, Not a Green New Deal

The Daily Escape:

St. Augustine Beach, FL – 2015 photo by Wrongo

(Wrongo and Ms. Right leave today for Florida and their annual week-long visit with Wrongo’s sisters. We’re leaving 19° for 70°. Blogging will be uneven, unless Trump wins his wrestling match with Kim, or India and Pakistan declare war.)

Raul Ilargi:

“There are lots of people talking about how they much disagree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, how silly she is, how dumb and impossible and irresponsible her Green New Deal is, but I think they’re missing a point or two. First of all: what’s the alternative? Who would you trade her for? Would you rather things stay the same?”

Wrongo thinks that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems savvy beyond her years. The septuagenarians in Congress can’t present themselves as she does, because she’s 29 years old, born in 1989. She’s in the first generation to grow up with a ubiquitous internet. For her elders, like Wrongo, that’s an acquired skill.

Wrongo has been thinking a lot about capitalism reform. Changing capitalism to take advantage of lessons learned in the past 50 years should be seen as a good thing, not the first step on the path to socialism as Republicans would have everyone believe.

And the Green New Deal is more New Deal than green. It emphasizes reforming our current economic system by deficit financing a new jobs program aimed at improving our infrastructure. The new infrastructure should create clean power, zero emissions vehicles, and high quality jobs that pay prevailing wages. It would be financed by a new tax structure that adds revenue while tilting the tax burden away from individuals to corporations and the uber-wealthy.

Wrongo isn’t a fan of Ocasio saying she’s a socialist. That’s most likely a bridge too far for America in 2020. It’s also unnecessary. Calling what she, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren and a few others have as policy goals are, for the most part, reform of capitalism.

Of course, cynical politicians can say that the Green New Deal is not realistic. That takes you back to establishment Democrats like Hillary, Pelosi, Biden, Booker, Harris and a few more we can’t hear. That’s fine if you want young Americans to invade a few more foreign nations, or you prefer growing income inequality for people here at home. Otherwise, they would all be terrible political leaders, particularly if you believe those policies must stop.

Turning to the “Green” part of the Green New Deal, Benjamin Studebaker offers a great perspective: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“…at this point, we have integrated the global economy so thoroughly that there may now be many irreducibly global problems that cannot be solved at the national level, even with an American commitment….We don’t have the global political institutions we need to handle problems like this, and every time we try to create them voters balk, accusing us of trying to destroy their cultures and deprive them of “sovereignty” and “national self-determination“, as if there were any meaningful sense in which they still had these things to start with.”

His point is that the US now produces only 15% of total global emissions. More from Studebaker:

“The EU commands a further 10%, while other rich states (such as Japan, Australia, and so on) add another 8%. This means that the rich states only control about a third of total emissions. China controls nearly another third (about 30%), and the rest comes from the remaining developing countries, with India and Russia making the largest contributions (7% and 5%, respectively) of that bunch.”

These developing countries are continuing to increase their emissions. This means that reductions from rich states are cancelled out by the growing emissions of developing countries.

Studebaker concludes that it’s beyond the ability of the US to go green unilaterally, and if we did, it wouldn’t bend the arc of global warming sufficiently to make a meaningful difference.

What we can do is provide an example for the world. We can do the right thing, precisely because it is the right thing to do. And along the way, reforming capitalism will quickly improve the lives of average Americans.

We can form a coalition around capitalism reform that includes most people in the bottom 90% of the economic pyramid. It can include Democrats, Independents and a few Republicans, most of whom would never be part of Bernie’s democratic socialism, or AOC’s Green New Deal.

There will be some version of the Green New Deal that starts in the near future. Let’s call it reform of capitalism, and get started on it today.

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