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Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government

Posted on Jan 28, 2012
Sam-Lehman (CC-BY)

Power lines prop up a utility pole after Hurricane Irene passed through Baltimore last August.

By Christian Parenti, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

Yes, when George W. Bush put an unqualified playboy at its helm, the agency dealt disastrously with Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Under better leadership, however, it has been anything but the sinister apparatus of repression portrayed by legions of rightists and conspiracy theorists.  FEMA is, in fact, an eminently effective mechanism for planning focused on the public good, not private profit, a form of public insurance and public assistance for Americans struck by disaster. Every year FEMA gives hundreds of millions of dollars to local firefighters and first responders, as well as victims dealing with the aftershock of floods, fires, and the other calamities associated with extreme weather events.

The agency’s work is structured around what it calls “the disaster life cycle”—the process through which emergency managers prepare for, respond to, and help others recover from and reduce the risk of disasters.  More concretely, FEMA’s services include training, planning, coordinating, and funding state and local disaster managers and first responders, grant-making to local governments, institutions, and individuals, and direct emergency assistance that ranges from psychological counseling and medical aid to emergency unemployment benefits. FEMA also subsidizes long-term rebuilding and planning efforts by communities affected by disasters. In other words, it actually represents an excellent use of your tax dollars to provide services aimed at restoring local economic health and so the tax base. The anti-government Right hates FEMA for the same reason that they hate Social Security—because it works!

As it happens, thanks in part to the congressional GOP’s sabotage efforts, thousands of FEMA’s long-term recovery projects are now on hold, while the cash-strapped agency shifts its resources to deal with only the most immediate crises.  This represents a dangerous trend, given what historical statistics tell us about our future.  In recent decades, the number of Major Disaster Declarations by the federal government has been escalating sharply: only 12 in 1961, 17 in 1971, 15 in 1981, 43 in 1991, and in 2011—99!  As a result, just when Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, FEMA’s disaster relief fund had already been depleted from $2.4 billion as the year began to a mere $792 million.

Like it or not, government is a huge part of our economy. Altogether, federal, state, and local government activity—that is collecting fees, taxing, borrowing and then spending on wages, procurement, contracting, grant-making, subsidies and aid—constitutes about 35% of the gross domestic product. You could say that we already live in a somewhat “mixed economy”: that is, an economy that fundamentally combines private and public economic activity.


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The intensification of climate change means that we need to acknowledge the chaotic future we face and start planning for it.  Think of what’s coming, if you will, as a kind of storm socialism.

After all, climate scientists believe that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beyond 350 parts-per-million (ppm) could set off compounding feedback loops and so lock us into runaway climate change. We are already at 392 ppm. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels immediately, the disruptive effect of accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere is guaranteed to hammer us for decades.  In other words, according to the best-case scenario, we face decades of increasingly chaotic and violent weather.

In the face of an unraveling climate system, there is no way that private enterprise alone will meet the threat. And though small “d” democracy and “community” may be key parts of a strong, functional, and fair society, volunteerism and “self-organization” alone will prove as incapable as private enterprise in responding to the massive challenges now beginning to unfold.

To adapt to climate change will mean coming together on a large scale and mobilizing society’s full range of resources. In other words, Big Storms require Big Government.  Who else will save stranded climate refugees, or protect and rebuild infrastructure, or coordinate rescue efforts and plan out the flow and allocation of resources?

It will be government that does these tasks or they will not be done at all.

Christian Parenti, author of the recently published Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books), is a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, a Puffin Writing Fellow, and a professor at the School for International Training, Graduate Institute. His articles have appeared in Fortune, the New York Times, the Washington Post, TomDispatch, and the London Review of Books, among other places.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Christian Parenti

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By gerard, January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Seems to me a clear and helpful article. There is always that tug-of-war between “public” and
“private” to deal with, but it’s (IMO) a self-evident fact that we need both. At the same time, we need an ever-changing, always cooperative balance between the two.  Nothing too much, as the Greeks used to say.
  That balance can always be figured out by people with differing viewpoints coming together to reach an agreement satisfactory to all sides - give or take a little here and there—never perfect, but do-able.
  What we dare not lose (and are in grave danger of losing) is the willingness to work things out together, the faith in democratic values and in the ability of agencies to self-correct and change.
  All is not lost yet, if we can exchange real information freely, say what we think, work for what we believe in, and resist authoritarian manipulation.
These are the very issues that are being muddled and endangered by super-managing agencies drunk on their own power and trying to manipulate outcomes. They even propose to dominate Nature!
  Unless they can be brought back to reality, the outcome is doubtful. Balance is vital. Integrity is essential. Blah, blah and blah ... but there it is, as usual, as always.  Buena ventura.

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By LocalHero, January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

What baseless, blatant idiocy.

The solution is to turn the problem over to the same corporatocracy that caused the problem in the first place?

Needless to say, there’s no reason to check into Parenti’s TomDispatch any time soon if this is the kind of fuzzy, statist thinking he produces. What dreck.

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

Hi balkas,

We don’t have a century. 

The UN predicts the population will reach 9 billion by 2050; by 2100
the population is expected to be 10 billion. 

Make no mistake, by that time the leading cause of death everywhere
will be starvation and thirst.

The ecosystem is collapsing. Our children will endure it. Our
grandchildren will probably die from it. It’s very serious. 

We’re fighting a war on terror against our fellow human beings but the
real terror will be the ecological collapse unfolding as we speak. 

Dig peace. Don’t bury it. We’re gonna need it.

D.R. Zing

Source for the UN predictions:

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 10:56 pm Link to this comment

Hi vironmentalman,

Stunning as it seems Monty Python produced a song for

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By D.R. Zing, January 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm Link to this comment

Damn!  This is an awesome article. TruthDig has found
another author of Hedges caliber. 

Here’s a suggestion for public investment: Build
dikes.  Produce productive pumps.  We’ll need them
around Florida, New York, the coast of Texas, etc. 

Sea levels are rising. Put an ice cube on a table. 
The whole thing doesn’t melt before it slides off.
That’s what will happen with Greenland as the planet
warms:  Its icecap will plunk off into the sea. 

If we don’t start investing in climate protection,
well, Tool’s got it right:  “Learn to swim, I’ll see
you down in Arizona Bay.”

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By Morpheus, January 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm Link to this comment

Nothings going to change if we keep talking about it and doing nothing.

Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( )

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By me1, January 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, the violence of helping people. Don’t you
libertards have anything better to do?

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By dhaab, January 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

BIG government is the answer to our climate change problems? Really? What a horribly flawed article.

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By Matthew Rogers, January 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Although I believe the evidence for anthropogenic global climate change is
strong, this sort of article does nothing but make Alex Jone’s rants about GCC
being a plot to strip us of our freedoms seem sane and plausible.

The only solution to the big corporatism that got us into trouble in the first
place is EXACTLY “voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity
groups,” and other LOCALC solutions for mutual aid that aren’t reliant on large
scale corpratism or statism, that requires a large carbon heavy infrastructure to

Fail and badly so!

This sort of utter failure of imagination by state centralist loving liberals/progs
is the sort of thing that makes me believe that only alliance between the
anarchist left and Libertarian right will save us from the suffocating iron cage of
bureaucracy and corpratism Max Weber tried to warn us about a century ago.

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By balkas, January 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

for me, it is painful to think about what is coming our way even in next
few decades, let alone in a century or two.

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By Anarcissie, January 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

As to the title, nothing will make me love violence.

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By vironmentalman, January 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The article is premised on the idea that global warming is happening (but there hasn’t been any since 1998) that man has something to do with it, or to do about it, and that “extreme” weather events (no standards for what qualifies here; the writer sited a hurricane in an unusually quiet hurricane season that fizzled out, but what IF) are related to climate change (climate change which used to be global warming but had to be changed because it stopped warming which was changed from man-made global warming because that was just too much of a stretcher to keep up with a straight face). Slipping the climate change nonsense in as a premise isn’t very subtle but trotting it out as a right/left issue is. Don’t fall for it.

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By Miko, January 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The two largest polluters in the U.S. today are the
Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. 
The largest non-governmental polluters in the U.S. do
so with explicit governmental sanction.  Contrary to
what Parenti assumes, when climate change becomes more
serious, the people responsible (which is to say the
people in charge of those departments) are unlikely to
be hailed as heroes.

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By entropy2, January 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment

Great idea…let’s not empower individuals and communities to nimbly and effectively cope (and even thrive) under rapidly changing conditions. No, let’s have a monolithic, centralized techno-bureaucracy lurching and lumbering from one crisis to another, while, at the same time, causing the next one.

And that’s the best case scenario, assuming that we weed out the crooks, megalomaniacal sociopaths and idiots out an all-powerful state.

Yeah…that’s the ticket.

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By didactic1, January 28, 2012 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Little or no evidence that climate change, as defined by those now alarmed by recent temp increases globally, can be reversed by controls on power and industrial production or switch on massive basis to noncarbon based transit.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm Link to this comment

Can’t reach part four, it gives a “can’t find data base” error.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

The costs of the future of climate change will be our freedoms too. As things get worse there are those who would want to institute authoritarian measures an desperate people will gladly have it. That is one of the many dangers we face.

Sooner or later the gov’t as it is starved because of allocation to the war machine will toll here higher an higher. Free Enterprise will close up shop where it costs too much of their bottom line.

FEMA was originally set up as a post war logistical unit. They weren’t designed originally to help anybody in a disaster which is why they had to be altered to do so.

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By Night-Gaunt, January 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment

I can’t reach part 4. It gives me “data base error.”

If we actually lived the way the Free Market Capitalists had their way we wouldn’t be the leader of the world in many things but multiple civil wars between the states-nations an corporations. Such things as democracy would be mostly unknown.

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