By Juan Cole
As President Obama made clear in his inaugural address Monday, failing to confront the threat of climate change in his second term would be a betrayal of future generations. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” Obama said, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” Actually, there are some who can avoid fires, drought and storms, but most of them voted for Mitt Romney.
At a time of continued unemployment and Republican assaults on workers’ rights, the climate crisis may not seem like a pressing bread and butter concern. However it is vital for the president and his allies in Congress to remember that those Americans most defenseless against extreme weather and natural disasters form the backbone of the Democratic Party.
That is the only conclusion one can draw from the draft of a new federal study on global warming’s growing impact on the United States. Those who stand for workers and the middle class, and for the rights of minorities, women and the underprivileged in our increasingly unequal society, are facing yet another epochal struggle. The carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere by the coal, oil and gas corporations threatens the well-being of the 99 percent on a whole range of new fronts.
Climate change is provoking more and more drastic weather events. Residents along coastal regions are at risk both from more violent storms and from a projected 3- to 4-foot sea level rise over the next eight decades. The enormous storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy is an example of these new threats. Hurricanes require warm water to remain active, and Sandy fed off of high Atlantic temperatures in waters that have historically been much colder.
The draft National Climate Assessment notes that people and neighborhoods along the coast were hardest hit, adding, “Many low-to-moderate income residents live in these areas and suffered the damage or loss of their homes, leaving tens of thousands of people displaced or homeless.” We saw with Katrina in New Orleans, as well, how the least well-off are often shunted to low-lying and more vulnerable land. Most of New Orleans will be gone within a century if we go on producing carbon dioxide at our current rate.
The elderly and medical patients faced special difficulties as a result of the storm surge, including the loss of electricity and other services, since they could not as easily flee. The assessment points out that with Sandy, “the elderly and infirm were highly vulnerable, especially those living in the coastal evacuation zone and those on upper floors of apartment buildings left without elevator service.” The rising temperatures and heat waves that global warming is bringing to the U.S. are especially risky for the elderly.
The $300 billion a year in agricultural crops and livestock produced by the United States will be adversely affected by climate change within 30 years, potentially increasing the cost of food and hurting farmworkers. People will see rising food prices if drought and other effects of climate change reduce our agricultural productivity through decreased rainfall and more insect infestations. The annual yield will also fluctuate more, causing prices to spike unpredictably some years.
At the moment, Americans spend only about 6 percent of their income on food, less than most Europeans and far less than is typical in the global south. Workers, the poor and everyone on a budget benefit from our relatively inexpensive groceries, but that boon is likely to change. Already more than one in six Americans is food insecure (i.e., they are sometimes unable to buy enough food to avoid hunger, and are just barely avoiding a nutritional crisis). Their situation will deteriorate further in coming years because of the damage climate change will do to crop yields.
Severe weather particularly endangers city dwellers, because municipal services are interconnected. Electricity is needed to pump water and to run some transportation, including elevators. Roads easily flood, making it difficult to flee rising waters. Oil refineries and pipelines are readily taken offline, producing fuel shortages that also hurt the ability of victims to leave disaster areas. City services, then, can be knocked out together in what scientists call a “cascade” (by which they mean that one disaster causes another, which causes another, on down the line).
About 245 million Americans now live in cities, and the vast majority of them are workers. The homeowners among them most often claim their residence as their major asset. Those homes are threatened by the harsh weather that climate change is generating.
The transportation networks on which people depend to get to work, moreover, could be degraded by the effects of climate change. First of all, a lot of damage could be done to the $4 trillion American transportation infrastructure by warming. Expansion joints on bridges suffer more stress when hot, and rail tracks buckle more often. In the Northern states, there will be less snow and more rain, and spring deluges will take out more bridges than slow-melting snow typically does. The asphalt in roads deteriorates faster in the heat, and drought in the Southeast and Southwest will cause slopes to be unstable and contribute to the pavement buckling. As for workers who live along the Gulf of Mexico, it will be harder to get around. According to the draft report on transportation, “In total, 24% of interstate highway miles and 28% of secondary road miles in the Gulf Coast region are at elevations below 4 feet.” (Sea levels will rise at least 4 feet over the coming 80 years).
And, well, it will be hot. Imagine being a construction worker in Houston where a heat wave is not 107 degrees, but 113. People whose jobs keep them outside in the summer may have to work more hours in the evenings and very early mornings, and will be at greater risk for dehydration, heat stroke and heart attack.
Labor activists and environmentalists need to band together to fight the effects of climate change, which will function as an extra tax on workers. The rich have the resources to get to the high ground. They can afford imported food, and will replace crumbling public infrastructure with toll roads and gated communities. It is the workers and the middle class who will bear the brunt of climate change disasters.
Workers and labor unions can take their own stand by divesting from coal, gas and oil companies in their pension funds, and can lobby for the closing of coal plants and a rapid move to wind and solar energy. The House of Representatives is useless, but municipal and state governments can accomplish a lot with their own energy projects and with tax rebates. Officials often will not offer them, however, unless pressured to do so. Not only unions, but organizations representing women and minorities have a stake in preventing these calamities. There are also expanding opportunities for crowdsourcing the funding of solar and wind projects. Solar panels are increasingly affordable and should be on every roof in the United States, and it is the people who can make that happen.
If carbon emissions are not radically reduced by 2020, we will be doomed to some of the worst effects of the intensified greenhouse gases. President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has finally enforced mercury pollution limits at coal plants, and is forcing substantial numbers of them to close. But all of them have to be shut in eight years if we are to avoid calamities, and it is not Obama’s instinct to pursue radical change. Nor has he been good about standing in the way of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a method of extracting natural gas that emits a great deal of methane. The president’s constituencies have to hold him to his inaugural promises and let him know that dealing with CO2 emissions and climate change is among their highest priorities for his second term.
Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through.