A Change in the Weather on Wall Street
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who works at an environmental organization. We were discussing the absence of any talk about climate change in the presidential campaign, and joked that the United States would decide to get serious only when Wall Street found itself under water.
That turned out to be a very bad joke. There were moments last week when I grumbled that I was paying for it: like everyone else on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, my family and I spent four days with no electricity or water. But others were burying their dead. For us, Sandy was an inconvenience. For many people, it was a catastrophe.
A catastrophe, however, shouldn’t be wasted. Climate change has a political problem: the countries most affected by it are not the ones in a position to do anything. The Maldive Islands are being swallowed by the Indian Ocean. Corn farmers in Kenya are seeing their crops withered by unprecedented drought. The death toll from Sandy so far in the United States stands at more than 100, but in Haiti it destroyed 70 percent of the country’s crops. Between drought, tropical storm Isaac and Sandy, 90 percent of Haiti’s crops have been destroyed by natural disasters this year.
The Maldives, Kenya and Haiti can do nothing to halt climate change. The United States can, but has seen no reason to — until, perhaps, last week. I don’t have any fixes for climate change. We’ve just suffered, however, through a storm that might be a fix for the lack of political will to do something about it.
Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the politics of climate change was immediate. Just three days after Sandy hit Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to make it the focus of his endorsement of President Obama. “Our climate is changing,” the mayor wrote, “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.” All of a sudden, climate change was the phrase of the day: New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Senator Charles Schumer and former President Bill Clinton were all talking about it.
Even though they are Democrats, it was startling to hear them discuss the subject. In March, 2009, the White House invited leaders of environmental organizations to a meeting. The invitees thought they were going to hear about the president’s strategy on climate change, in preparation for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December. And they did — aides to the administration’s environmental adviser Carol Browner, its green jobs adviser Van Jones and Nancy Sutley, the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, gave out a one-page memo. The key point: don’t talk about climate change. Don’t even use the phrase. The president was trying to pass an economic recovery bill that included $90 billion in green projects — the groups should talk about clean energy jobs instead.
Betsy Taylor, a political strategist on climate change, recalled that the only person who stood up was the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. “This is going to come back and haunt us,” he said.
“It became a mantra inside big environmental groups,” said Taylor. “Talking about climate change is toxic. Some still don’t use the ‘C’ word. The White House’s intentions were good but the impact was dreadful. It set us back in a huge way.”
The effect went beyond the United States. As long as the world’s carbon giant was pretending climate change didn’t exist, other countries had the perfect excuse for inaction. The conference in December 2009 produced a weak, nonbinding agreement.
Judging by the campaign, politicians, as well, still assume that the “C” word is toxic. Public belief in climate change and support for action did dip for several years, beginning in late 2008. In part, that fluctuation occurred because of people’s experience of the weather — winters were cold. And the recession made it an unreceptive time for proposals such as a carbon tax that would probably increase the price of energy and cut jobs — at least in the short term.
But American views on the subject have also been manipulated by a campaign by energy producers — mainly the Koch brothers (who back the Tea Party) and the American Petroleum Institute — to paint climate change as an invention of anti-growth liberal tree-huggers.
Their operation has been tremendously effective at influencing news coverage of climate change — and through that, belief in the reality of climate change and support for action. The chorus of scorn from Republican primary candidates probably contributed as well. Taken together, the right wing has completely controlled the framing of the climate change debate.
But even the Koch brothers are no match for Mother Nature. This year, the extreme weather began to change American views again — even before Hurricane Sandy. Numerous surveys — here’s one from George Mason and Yale universities— show that Americans now overwhelmingly believe climate change is real and caused by humans, and that it threatens people in the United States. Another survey by the same organizations found that a political position in favor of climate action wins votes among Democratic and Independent voters, and does little harm with Republican voters.
Taylor commissioned a national survey about climate change, and from that wrote a strategy paper for advocates of action:
- Talk about American patriotism. Americans don’t shrink from a fight. Don’t underestimate Americans and what we can do.
- Talk about the world we are leaving our children.
- Talk about the role of oil money.
Taylor says Hurricane Sandy has now added new arguments. One is that climate change is not just a threat for people elsewhere, in the future. It’s here and now. Hurricane Katrina affected a part of the country that was largely poor, black and far from the centers of power. Not Sandy. “To have Hurricane Sandy hit where many powerful people live…You’re going to have lots of Republicans and Democrats sitting without water and light saying we can’t ignore this,” she said. “It’s a tremendous new opportunity for us to break the stranglehold on Washington.”
The other new argument is economic. Until this year, the political calculus about climate change had only one side. The oil and coal companies made sure everyone knew about the costs of action. But few people mentioned the costs of inaction. Now they cannot be ignored.
Every year, ISO Property Claim Services, which does research and risk consulting for property and casualty insurers, measures insured losses in the United States due to natural catastrophes. Last year the figure was $32 billion. This year Sandy alone may cost $50 billion — not to mention damage caused by record heat, record drought and record wildfires. And “insured losses” covers property and casualty insurance only. It doesn’t include crop insurance — this year about a $20 billion to $25 billion loss, and taxpayers will cover all but $5 billion of that. It doesn’t include payouts by the national flood insurance program — at least $1 billion this year even before Hurricane Sandy.
And of course, it doesn’t include the expense of replacing destroyed tunnels, bridges, subways and coastal defenses. Nor the costs of cleanup, business interruption (the largest loss component of 9/11), or higher prices — drought is a big reason we are paying more for food and cotton clothing. Nor the soaring price of insurance. A report by Ceres, an organization started after the Exxon Valdez oil spill to promote sustainable investment and business practices, details the dire threat climate change poses to the insurance industry. The threat persists even though insurers have been pulling out of the highest-risk markets entirely. In those places, states have become the insurer of last resort — and some of the payouts will come from taxpayers.
There is, of course, no simple mathematical trade-off between the cost of action and the cost of inaction: a dollar spent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions does not save us a dollar in disaster averted. Natural disasters have been around a lot longer than man-made carbon emissions, and the destruction from extreme weather we are seeing today is due only in part to climate change. (How large a part? Depends on whom you ask.) It might be too late — we could spend hundreds of billions on cutting carbon emissions and end up getting nothing for it in terms of reducing climate change. Or the reverse — we could invest now in setting the United States on a greener path, and reap the benefits for generations.
What Hurricane Sandy has made plain is that there is a balance. We’re already paying for climate change, and that tax is only going to rise. Advocates for action can make the same argument as those who mock climate change: to do nothing is to be anti-jobs, anti-growth, anti-American values. “We are starting to see some acknowledgement that the numbers are enormous, but not nearly as much as we should,” said Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres. “This is a fundamental economic issue. There aren’t a lot of things that have shut down the stock exchange.”