Tag Archive: Creative Destruction

Nov 19 2014

Can the US political system deal with climate change?

The American “system” has been a bit tardy in its response to climate change. Experts tell us that the longer it takes to make needed changes, the more difficult it will be to make them.

As 350.org’s Bill McKibben puts it:

We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn’t care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets.  Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t understand climate change — and it’s not at all clear that President Obama understands them.

There are lots of reasons why the response of the system has been so slow. There is significant resistance in the system to the sort of changes that need to be made. That resistance has manifested itself in a number of ways, from President Obama using the spies at the NSA to kill global agreements on climate change to the bipartisan popularity of climate change denial in Congress, the media and the public relations industry, despite virtually indisputable scientific evidence.

Resistance is created by a variety of groups based on their perceived interests. Enormously wealthy, powerful corporations and individuals who want to preserve their profits from fossil fuels and related industries, people who rely on jobs created or enabled by fossil fuel industries, people who fear economic chaos and the loss of their comforts due to actions to stop climate change, and politicians whose fortunes depend upon the money and other resources of the fossil fuel industry are some huge sources of systemic inertia.