We can run. We can try to hide. But there is no Planet B

Julie Ann Neely: “We will live through this, but when the pandemic runs its course, environmental degradation will remain to disrupt our economy and threaten our health.” -promoted by Laura Belin

While simultaneously trying to stay safe and reopen the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us daily that we are all part of the interconnected web of life on earth. We are struggling with unprecedented disruptions in healthcare and the economy, as climate disasters increase in frequency and intensity, exacerbating health risks.

Long after this wave of infections ebbs and a vaccine is developed, we will still live with the reverberations. Whether we are able to deal with them depends on the leaders we elect in November.

In the grand scheme of things, Mother Earth doesn’t give a fig about politics, the stock market, big profits, or the lines we draw in the sand that divide us. Nor does she need us.

Basically, we live on a big rock floating in the vast cosmos, with a unique environmental system of which we are a very-small part. Our lives depend on a thin, delicately balanced layer of invisible gases and a massive, diverse population of flora and fauna. This is her environment and it is up to us to figure out how to live within her ecosystem. If we screw it up, we live or die with our choices. Everything we do affects the whole. Think of the butterfly effect as metaphor. When we pollute air molecules here, they keep going around the earth; when we pollute water molecules here, they continue around the earth – no passport required.

Seem far-fetched? Think back to the Soviet Union in 1986 when the Chernobyl Power Plant reactor #4 exploded. It was Cliff Robinson, a chemist at Forsmark, Sweden’s power plant, 1,100 miles from Chernobyl, who raised the alarm about excessive atmospheric radioactivity, forcing Soviet authorities to admit to the nuclear disaster.

Modern Day Oracles

January 23, 1990 – Astrophysicist Carl Sagansaid in an address before an international audience at the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University,

“I am haunted by a sentence in the Book of Proverbs (1:18). ‘They set an ambush for their own lives.’ We cannot continue mindless growth in technology, with widespread negligence about the consequences of that technology. It is well within our power to curb technology, to direct it to the benefit of everyone on Earth.”

His words were prophetic; climate crisis is upon us.

February 24, 2020 – Dr. Sven Teske, Research Director for Institute for Sustainable Futures, said in the Climate Action Now podcast,

“…we have all the technologies available to produce enough electricity and heat, and also transport energy to maintain an economic growth on a global level and at the same time phase out fossil fuels. The problem […] is a political problem and not a technical problem and, also, not an economic one.”

COVID-19 – A Dress Rehearsal For What’s To Come

Just as big corporations and individuals are players in the climate crisis, so too we all must be players in the solution.  It is up to us to get creative and separate our wants from what is needed to live.  Mother Earth’s ecosystem will continue with or without us.  Being a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Native American (who have always known this truth) or any other “ist” is not part of the natural order.  Mother Earth can kick us off her planet and there will still be an atmosphere, but it may not support human life; there will still be vegetation, but it may not be useful to us; there will still be forms of life, but they may not be ours.  Every day that we delay action, we condemn our children, grandchildren, and ourselves to a much worse future.

Although the climate tipping point will not play out in the small window of time we have seen with the coronavirus, the effects of procrastinating will be no less catastrophic. 

President Donald Trump and his gang of science deniers are moving us backward. He is reneging on America’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement and gutting environmental regulations.  In his 2017 National Security Strategy, he outlined his doctrine of U.S. fossil-fuel energy dominance.

Environmental regulations and agencies are being gutted. In May 2020, the New York Times compiled a list of 100 environmental regulations the Trump administration has reversed or is in the process of reversing.

The Big Takeaway

The pandemic has exposed our lack preparedness and resilience in an interconnected globalized economy. This trifecta of a global pandemic, a shredded economy and increasing climate disasters will not be the last. All of us, as well as our elected leaders, need to look beyond petty partisan posturing. Today’s problems are universal and should be seen as a wake-up call for what lies ahead.

Business as usual will no longer work –  A Look At The Two Most Recent Bailouts:

As the financial crisis peaked in September 2008, taxpayer dollars were used to bailout bankers who sold “garbage-quality housing loans.” In the aftermath, financial assets of the rich increased and the average American received almost nothing.  Millions were thrown out of their homes and/or lost their jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned another crisis. Called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), $500 billion has been designated to help small businesses (500 employees or less) retain employees and meet expenses. 

However, without having to prove the pandemic has harmed them, and with no oversight to see how the money was spent, $454 billion in PPP funds have gone to large corporations such as Foremost Group owned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s in-laws, and Jared Kushner and family businesses. Meanwhile, many small business applications languish.

The two crises have different origins, but the essential question about recovery are the same. Who will benefit and who will be left out? Will corporate America and the politically connected once again benefit while working people see little relief.

Is it possible to go back to “normal?” Do we really want to?   Joseph E. Stiglitz, Professor of Economics at Columbia University has warned, “…we were short-sighted, constructing a system that is plainly not resilient, insufficiently diversified, and vulnerable to interruptions.”

In the 1980s many believed the government (also known as the public sector) must let business take control of economic growth. Unless, of course, markets mess up or there is some type of breakdown in the private sector, at which time the government must get involved by opening its purse to bail them out. Once taxpayer (public sector) money pays for their mistakes, the government is expected to butt out, providing nothing of value in return to benefit the common good.

In short, it’s okay to socialize risks by taking taxpayers’ money for the welfare of private businesses and, by extension, their stockholders and executives.  But – it’s not okay to socialize a share of the benefits to promote the common good for the stakeholders (us), such as reducing green-house gases, assuring affordable prescriptions, or prohibiting predatory lending.

We Are On A Precipice

How we vote in November will determine the fate of our democracy and Mother Earth’s course. The current crisis is evidence that an economy based on short-sighted business interests, at the expense of the environment and the public good, is not sustainable.  

If we want to avoid setting “…an ambush for their own lives…”  we must support leaders who understand that we are only as healthy as the environment and respect the fact that our country runs on the backs of our workforce, non-factory farms, and small businesses. We will live through this, but when the pandemic runs its course, environmental degradation will remain to disrupt our economy and threaten our health.

Many economists believe we are focusing on the wrong things. They point out the flaws of looking in a rear-view mirror at traditional risk assessment models and policies formed on outdated financial trends. We have seen short-term goals that produce quick profits and stock buyouts to maximize stockholder profits result in stagnant wages and an insecure gig economy. 

That is not to say stockholders don’t deserve a return on their investments. However, promoting short-term practices that extract financial resources to the degree that the environment is destroyed, with little remaining to fairly compensate the public sector is wrong.

The Bigger Takeaway

Short-term thinking is not compatible with the long-term adjustments necessary to stem global warming. Long-term thinking is required to maintain a sustainable environment, which is necessary for a healthy, growing economy that can support comprehensive, resilient healthcare. To move our country forward, many economists agree that it is time to rethink our public purpose and what we consider to be of public value.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato sees our current crisis as an opportunity to develop ways of doing capitalism differently, and better. In a virtual conversation with TED Global curator Bruno Giussani on June 22, 2020, she discussed the need to rethink what governments are for. “In order to build a better economy, …we must find more accurate ways to measure value within it.” She asks fundamental questions about how value has been defined, who decides what value means, and who measures it.

She argues, among other things:

*If we are to use the GDP (gross domestic product) as a measure of our economic health, we need to rethink what it includes. Currently, we confuse value creation with value extraction; we confuse rents with profits. For example, the salaries of teachers go into the GDP as a cost, but the value produced by high quality public education is not included.

*Governments should be using its ”… power – both of investment and procurement …” to be co-creators of value for the public good, such as making airline bailouts (a private sector business) conditional on reduced emissions targets, as Austria has done.

*Public funding for healthcare research should carry with it public-private partnerships that ensures fair prices, prevents patent abuses, and safeguards adequate medical supplies, with profits being reinvested, rather than “…siphoned out to shareholders.”

Kate Raworth, a Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, also questions outdated measures for determining growth. The GDP’s “limited scope (e.g. ignoring the value of unpaid labor like housework and parenting or making no distinction between revenues from weapons or water) has kept us “financially, politically and socially addicted to growth” without integrating its costs on people and planet.”

The pandemic has also forced us to recognize the hazards associated with politicizing science and prioritizing business to the exclusion of the public welfare. 

If we are to mitigate future catastrophes, we need leaders, at all levels of government, who understand that planetary and human health are interconnected. As temperatures increase, there will be greater risks from severe and widespread biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, flooding, extreme heat, droughts, pandemics, and other natural phenomena that will lead to increased environmental damage, economic loss, adverse health effects, and regional conflicts over resources. Globally, farmers and farm communities will face greater challenges, including threatened food and water supplies, and U.S. farmers won’t be spared from climate change damage that is already beginning.

The Bigger Takeaway — We Can Do This

We Have the scientific and technological knowledge, and the practical solutions upon which effective policies and actions can be implemented without delay. We know what’s happening – what to do – how to do it – no waiting required.  Unlike the mysteries associated with a totally new coronavirus, the mechanisms of climate change are known. Scientific models predict how unchecked greenhouse gases will affect both the environment, our health, and the economy. Worldwide there are private companies and government policy makers who realize the wisdom of ending fossil fuel use sooner rather than later.

We Don’t Have the political will. Let’s remember that we have a guy in the White House whose go-to for solving economic problems is filing bankruptcy. He admits to six business bankruptcies and has boasted, “I do play with the bankruptcy laws—they are very good for me.”

Conservative estimates show the U.S. subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of $20 billion a year. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute points out that some of the subsidies have been around for a century, although the circumstances relevant at their inception no longer exist. Why are we wasting our money?

While scientists and other countries have been moving forward, we are regressing as our president maneuvers to subsidize fossil fuel use and give the coal industry false hope of a rebirth.(31) As a result, ideas for progressive energy strategies seldom see the light of day. 

Conservative lawmakers introduce legislation written by corporations, representing it as their own, for the benefit of Wall Street, propping up and increasing sagging bottom lines, and giving regulatory decision-making power to the mega-wealthy and corporations.

The Best Takeaway – There Is Still Time To Correct Course – But Not A Lot

Here’s where political will comes in, not just for governments, but for all of us. Do we, as a society, have the courage to make a long-term commitment to reduce, or eventually eliminate, fossil fuel consumption?

Green energy technology is here. It has begun, but it will take a long-term commitment to invest the resources necessary to bring it to full maturity. Rather than funnel outdated fossil fuel subsidies into big oil and coal, why not reapportion a big chunk of that money as an investment in bringing green energy to its full capacity?

It won’t happen overnight, but new jobs will be created as green energy production grows, and there will be new innovations that will lead to even more new jobs.  As economies of scale increase, energy costs should decrease, plus we will have a healthier and cleaner environment.

It’s Time To Get Real – We Can Do It Now Or Wait Until We’re Forced To – It Won’t Be Pretty.

The true costs of using fossil fuels and fossil-derived products are not reflected in their market price, nor are the costs to human health acknowledged in the GDP.  From a global perspective, today solar and wind energy has become cheaper than newly built coal, gas, and nuclear plants. Wind and solar power are cheaper than fossil-based power in most parts of the world.We have only to look at our home state to see possibilities; 37% of Iowa’s electricity comes from wind.  We’ve got a good start – let’s keep it going.

Who we elect in November will determine our fate. It will take intelligence, vision, and courage to address the national and global realities of climate change. Geographically, the risks are not equally distributed, and neither are the pathways for adapting to a changed climate. There will be complex chain reactions, and cascade effects from climate transitions that will trigger political shifts, ecological scarcities, and adaptive agricultural practices. Food and water scarcities will increase. Globally, average temperatures are nearly 2Celsius higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution, and they are continuing to rise. The big question is will we be able to limit temperature increases to 1.5 0C (2.70 Fahrenheit) in the next decade?

It’s up to all of us. With great liberties, I paraphrase a line from President John F. Kennedy’s September 12, 1962 speech: We can choose to do this, not because it will be easy, but because it will be hard.

Please vote as if the lives of our children and grandchildren, out to seven generations, depend on it – BECAUSE THEY DO.

Julie Ann Neely is a longtime independent feminist/environmentalist/activist, now Democrat, who became politically active in retirement because she is worried about her grandchildren’s future and believes our democracy is in danger.

Top image: View of a cloudy earth from space, public domain under Creative Commons license.

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  • The most fundamental problem...

    …which we very understandably don’t want to think about, is the “growing economy.” A finite planet cannot sustain a ever-growing economy and an ever-growing human population. We are involved in the ultimate Ponzi scheme, which amounts to “growth in our time,” because we are unwilling/unable to figure out how to achieve the no-growth steady state that humans absolutely must achieve if there is to be any hope of planetary life-support systems ultimately remaining functional. We are apparently hoping our descendants will somehow figure out how to stabilize the human population and the economy before the life-support systems collapse. Good luck, kids.