The D.C. Blackouts and Global Warming

July 09, 2012

Dean Baker
Al Jazeera English, July 9, 2012

See article on original website

Millions of people across the East Coast are sweltering in near-record temperatures. In the Washington area, tens of thousands are dealing with the heat without air conditioning or power due to a storm the prior weekend. The remarkable part of this story is that almost no one is talking about global warming.

Of course no specific weather event can be directly tied to global warming, just as any individual person’s heart attack cannot be directly attributed to the fact that they don’t exercise and are 50 pounds overweight. In both cases it is a question of probabilities. And the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are raising the planet’s temperature substantially increases the probability that we will get long stretches of extraordinary heat like the one that hit the Midwest and Northeast over the last 10 days.  

In short, this is what global warming looks like, or least what it looks like in the United States. If there were an environmental movement in the United States, they would be screaming at the top of their lungs about the harm to life and property from this heat wave and power outage.

These costs are likely to be considerable. Hundreds of thousands of people had to discard food in their refrigerators and freezers as a result of the power outages. Many gathered their family together and went to stay with friends or spend time in a hotel. There were likely hundreds of thousands of days of lost work.

Putting it all together, we are easily talking about tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars of damage caused by just this one weather event. And that doesn’t even count the threat to life and health to the sick and elderly people who had to endure intense heat without air conditioning.

The right will be yelling about the $500 million that the government is at risk of losing on its loan guarantee to Solyndra long after we all are dead; yet we have an enormous tragedy in front of our eyes that is attributable to our failure to take serious steps to stem global warming and everyone is too polite to say anything. Does anyone wonder why the right seems to be winning?

There are a couple of other points about this story that are worth noting. First, some people were much better situated to protect themselves from this heat wave. It’s not clear whether wealthier neighborhoods were more likely to escape the power outages than poorer areas. (Many rich people live on tree-lined streets and have above ground power lines.)

However, there is no doubt that a person with money in the bank and an extensive line of credit in a credit card is better able to find a hotel room in which to keep their family cool for a few days than a person who is living paycheck to paycheck or perhaps is unemployed due to the downturn. This is what the impact of global warming will look like on a world scale.

Those who are relatively wealthy will likely be able to shield themselves from many of the worst effects of global warming. They will not be victims of monsoons and flooding like hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh and elsewhere in south Asia. Nor will they be victims of drought who are unable to produce enough food to survive, like tens of millions of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. While no one may be able to escape the negative effects of global warming completely, the bulk of the suffering will no doubt be experienced by the world’s poor.

This raises a final point, which should be obvious but somehow is largely ignored in the public debate. Restrictions on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are intended to limit global warming have nothing to do with restricting the market. These restrictions are about enforcing the rule of law and preventing some people from harming others with their actions.

In this way, restrictions on GHG are similar to the laws that prohibit me from dumping my sewage on my neighbor’s lawn. The opponents of these restrictions don’t give a damn about free markets. Opponents of restrictions on GHG emissions are arguing for the right to dump sewage on their neighbors’ lawn. Their argument is that the United States is a big powerful country so we can do whatever we want to the rest of the world and no one can stop us.

That may or may not prove true in the decades ahead as China surpasses the United States as an economic power and other countries continue to gain on us. But no one should mistake the position that we are strong enough to do whatever we want in the world, without regard to the consequences, for a principled commitment to a free market. The global warming deniers are committed to free dumping, not free markets.

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