Per Capita: One step forward, five steps backlash
Remembering isn’t really my strong suit, but I do recall points in the evolution of my thinking about the climate crisis.
There was the beginning, when it seemed that if all us individuals changed our light bulbs and rode a bike that would take care of it. That framework evaporated fairly quickly along with the “think globally, act locally” mantra. Not that individual action is not important, it is. It’s just that it doesn’t scale to the problem and in any case it would take more time than we have. We need big chunks of change, actions that are only accessible to governments and corporations.
I also recall thinking that once the adverse effects of the climate crisis became obvious, like floods, droughts, heat waves, fires, extreme weather of all sorts, the economic damages would pile up and the insurance companies and the banks would take action out of self-interest. It would simply cost too much to continue business as usual.
So, it seemed, as extreme weather events were global, with every continent affected, a silver lining emerged. Insurance companies raised rates or stopped issuing policies in areas of consistent devastation. Banks likewise began to factor climate into lending decisions. And corporations of all stripes recognized the obvious: a burning planet would hurt their bottom line. They began to listen to shareholders who were not so politely requesting that the companies take climate into consideration when making decisions. Pension funds were among the leaders in reducing or eliminating investments in fossil fuels.
These were big steps forward. This leads us to the NY Times article of May 28th under the title of “G.O.P. Weaponizes Statehouses against Green Corporate Goals.” Quoting: “In West Virginia, the state treasurer has pulled money from Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, because the Wall Street firm has flagged climate change as an economic risk.” And, “In Texas, a new law bars the state’s retirement and investment funds from doing business with companies that the state comptroller says are boycotting fossil fuels. Conservative lawmakers in 15 other states are promoting similar legislation.” According to a West Virginia legislator, “These big banks are virtue signaling because they are ‘woke’ and they either shut up or get on the (black) list.” There are lots of other examples cited in the article. Too many to list and it’s not just about climate. The state treasurer of South Carolina warned JPMorgan and other banks “to stay out of the political culture wars and particularly abstain from the petty, ‘woke’ cancel culture.” Suffice it to say, this involves “red” states all over the country.
This is frightening, and also stupid. The not nearly left-wing consulting firm Deloitte issued a report comparing the costs of doing nothing to rein in fossil fuels and the climate crisis with what one might expect from significant action now to reduce emissions. One would think this would be important reading for state governments punishing banks and insurance companies for including risks of future costs from the climate crisis in investment and insurance decisions.
Summarized in a Grist article, the report warns that if the world warms by three degrees centigrade, economic growth would be hindered everywhere, most of the world’s population would live a worse life, crops would fail, health care spending would increase, sea level rise would inundate coastal regions, and the cost spread over 50 years would be $178 trillion. “On the other hand, swift action to zero out global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 could add $43 trillion to the global economy over the same period and plant the seeds for a green Industrial Revolution.
The report also found that “Starting in the 1990s, oil companies and other high-emitting corporations looking to avoid regulation began paying economists to produce studies that looked solely at the cost of climate policies, making them look prohibitively expensive to policymakers and the public. These models usually ignored the real-world costs that come with a hotter planet as well as the benefits of cutting emissions, like better air quality and healthier people. If the economic impacts of a changing climate are left out of economic baselines, the result is likely to be poor decision-making, ineffective risk management, and dangerously inadequate efforts to address the climate crisis.”
As the article points out, “this narrow economic analysis is still the dominant frame for politicians” with, for example Joe Manchin of West Virginia indicating he can’t support Biden’s plan because of the $1.7 trillion over 10 years.
The report identifies specific impacts on all regions of the world with China and countries in the Asia Pacific region getting clobbered by “unchecked climate change” resulting in costs of nearly $100 trillion.
Returning to the New York Times article (another one today about similar attacks on companies that speak out for gun safety laws) officials in Republican-led states are demanding that financial institutions which provide real information about risks that should inform their decisions should instead shut up.
Unfortunately, when it comes time to pay the bill for this willful negligence all of us will pay. This one step forward followed by five steps backlash is a lethal cycle. I wish those so focused on “woke” would wake up.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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