Houston, South Asia Floods: Climate Change Is Creating A New Urban Crisis

Jerri-Lynn here. In this Real News Network interview, investigative journalist and economics professor Christian Parenti says we have the laws and technology to protect humanity from climate disaster, provided that we’re willing to rip away the veil of the ‘free market’. I’m not nearly so optimistic, but am posting this interview because it doesn’t fixate solely on the climate change problem but does mention some ways out of the crisis. Not that any of these look possible, given current political realities. But it’s important to at least to consider solutions– even if implementation is at best a distant possibility.

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you from Baltimore. Texas and Louisiana are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Harvey, which the U.S. National Hurricane Center is calling the biggest rainstorm on record. It’s killed at least 31 people and led to mass evacuations. Most of Houston is under water.

Meanwhile, this week, torrential monsoons came down in South Asia. The resulting floods in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal have killed 1,200 people and left millions homeless.

And the U.S. National Hurricane Center has just reported that another storm, Tropical Storm Irma, has formed in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. The threat it poses is not known. It’s too early to know its track.

So we’re joined to talk about all this today by Christian Parenti. Christian is associate professor of economics at John Jay College at The City University of New York. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. His latest article appears in the latest issue of Jacobin. Thanks so much for joining us today, Christian.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

DHARNA NOOR: So let’s start with Hurricane Harvey. There’s been a lot of coverage of the storm itself and the damage it’s done. But some have noted that the media has done very little to connect the storm to climate change. Talk about how climate change creates storms like Harvey, and why corporate media would choose not to make this connection.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. I mean, the science on climate change is really quite definitive. This has been predicted for a long time, that we’ll see rising sea levels. And we now, we’re seeing rising sea levels and more intense and more frequent storms. We’re having this very intense storm. Interestingly, the U.S. has actually gone through something of a hurricane drought recently, which is itself the result of climate change, to some extent. As the land warms … Long story short, the wind shear off the land is sort of pushing hurricanes out to sea. So since Katrina there have been a number of hurricanes that have formed and then veered off the coast. And scientists now think that this actually has to do with warming land mass.

But be that as it may, we’re locked in for decades of extreme weather. Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, it takes a long time for the effects to be manifest of the amount of heat in the ocean, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere trapping heat. So we’re destined to see more of this. And the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its job is to vet all the best science on this. They predict that minimum three-foot sea-level rise, probably more like something like a six-foot sea-level rise, on average, by the end of this coming century. And also, sea levels are not actually even, and sea levels are not rising evenly. The North Atlantic is rising more quickly than other coastlines. And that is to say, the coastlines where we have New York City and D.C. and other very important cities in the U.S.

And why would the corporate media not want to deal with this? Because they have been conditioned by decades of campaigning by Exxon and Koch-funded denialists. And they are afraid to draw the ire of these right-wing talking heads. They’re afraid to turn off their advertisers and sponsors. And they’re following the cues of the political class. We have now straight-up climate denialists in charge of the White House, as everyone knows.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Just to support what you’ve just said, Reuters reported that on Tuesday, the current Environmental Protection Agency, “Rejected a contention by scientists that historic rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey was linked to climate change.” The EPA said that this was, and this is another quote, “An attempt to politicize an ongoing tragedy.” What’s your response to all of this coming from the federal government, from the EPA?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I mean, I think that’s an old story. We’re aware that we’ve got these lunatics in there that are stripping out reference to climate change. I think a more important thing to talk about is what is climate change gonna do in the near term? And I think what we’re looking at is a new urban crisis. Houston, Miami, all these other cities, eventually it’s gonna be no longer possible to deny the fact that sea levels are rising. And the most dangerous thing about rising sea levels is not the steady, incremental rise of sea levels, but the threat of storm surges coming from these big hurricanes.

What could easily happen, probably sooner rather than later … I mean in the Jacobin article, which is about a climate-driven urban crisis that was written over the summer before this event, I said, “Oh maybe in the 2030s or 2020s.” But could happen sooner where you see frequent inundations of urban infrastructure, and it’s gonna become harder and harder to rebuild that infrastructure. So in Houston, we don’t know what the effect will be. But a lot of these homeowners, the vast majority, do not have flood insurance. They will not be compensated for their losses. The federal government will probably step in. But what happens if there are three or four or five cities dealing with this? At some point, the federal government might not be able to continually subsidizing the rebuilding process. The rebuilding process is what maintains property values and faith in the persistence of property values.

And so what you have on the coasts is this weird situation where lots of different parties are hostage to property values. You have homeowners who don’t want to say that they are leaving and selling because of rising sea levels. You have cities that are trying to plan for rising sea levels, but they can’t actually say that too much publicly for fear of creating a stampede out of local real estate and collapsing the real estate values. And the cities need the real estate as a tax base.

So there’s this perfect storm of kind of inaction because there are immediate consequences for property owners and for municipal governments to start articulating the nature of the crisis and say: We need money to defend against rising sea levels. And so we have this really bizarre denial at that level in city governments. Very few cities are actually planning and aggressively building infrastructure to prepare for these kinds of inundations.

DHARNA NOOR: Scientists warned of Hurricane Harvey’s arrival before it hit, a long time before it hit. And this isn’t the first time that Mumbai has seen catastrophic flooding. In 2005, floods there killed over 500 people. In your new article in Jacobin, you predicted a climate-driven urban crisis. These floods have brought Mumbai, India’s financial capital, to a halt. Schools have closed. People were stuck in their offices overnight. The airport had to send flights to other cities.

And then back here in Houston, Houston’s not only the U.S.’ fourth most populous city, it’s also the center of the U.S.’ energy industry. It’s where the nation’s largest refining and petro-chemical complex is located. And it’s home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies. Will the fact that these storms have hit major economic sources have any impact on their lasting effects?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It’s hard to say. I mean, I think that what’s gonna happen is that local elites and national elites, at least in this country, are gonna double down on climate denial because they’re hostage to these property values. So everyone in Houston is probably gonna just put on a happy face and try and squeeze as much money as possible out of the federal government and pretend like they can carry on unperturbed. But eventually, that will become impossible, and you will see an evacuation from these pretty important coastal cities and the collapse of their real estate values.

And the other thing, long term, going several decades into this century thinking about rising sea levels, coastal cities are crucial choke points and connective nodes for the world economy. All of this could be dealt with if there was proper planning and if the horizons for action were far enough in advance. But this kind of denial and then reaction to crises mean we’re probably gonna look at situations where crucial ports like Bayonne, New Jersey, whatever, get disabled for lack of proper planning around that. Maybe not. Maybe this will be a wake-up call and there’ll be a kind of new alliance of cities to take seriously the problem of climate change to coastal cities and set best practices, etc. etc. But we don’t see much of that.

Bill de Blasio here in New York City is building a tram, I forget how much it is, it’s like over a billion dollars, on the Brooklyn waterfront. And this is about gentrifying, it’s a public subsidy to gentrification. Brooklyn waterfront is full of warehouses that are being turned into luxury housing or replaced by high-rises. Instead of building proper sea walls and perhaps even retreating from the coast and returning certain coastal areas to be wetlands to break storm surges, which would involve buying out homeowners and all sorts of investments to sort of re-wild to create a kind of eco-buffer around the city … Instead of doing that, we’re investing money in this fantasy that the coast is gonna be unperturbed.

Meanwhile, we haven’t even dealt with all the problems from Superstorm Sandy. One of the major lines connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, the L train, is going to shut down for over a year because the tunnel was inundated by that storm. So that’s just a taste of the kind of problems that we’re gonna see much more of in this century in coastal cities. And it’s that kind of crisis of infrastructure that is going to, I think, be the primary kind of catalyst for this new urban crisis. A new climate-driven urban crisis.

DHARNA NOOR: And in Sandy, of course, the people who were most affected and are still most affected, are disproportionately low-income people, people of color. Now in Houston, petro-chemical sites are polluting the air. And the people who live near those sites are disproportionately low-income and, again, people of color. Talk about this trend globally. What parts of the world have been most affected by climate change and extreme weather? And what will happen to people who are the most vulnerable if this crisis continues or when this crisis continues?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. I mean, that was sort of what the focus of my last book, Tropic of Chaos, was about. The new geography of climate change is pretty much like the old geography of imperialism with core and periphery. In the global south, you have the extreme weather associated with climate change is kicking in particularly acutely. And unfortunately, it’s happening in places like Kenya and Burkina Faso, other places, where the state has been systematically degraded by neo-liberal structural adjustment. So the IMF and the World Bank institutions dominated by the U.S. and its wealthy allies have been pushing austerity on the global south and most economies of the global south for over 30 years. And that has left the governments in states that are on the front line of this change even more incapable of dealing and affording to plan and affording to invest.

So what you see are people having to adapt freestyle on their own, and often that takes the form of ethnic, religious millenarian violence. The way that climate change drives violence is not sort of always so direct that people are flooded and then they go attack the neighbors or something like that. But the displacement leads to poverty, leads to relative deprivation and anxiety, and then people become willing to follow some racist or religious fanatic leader and try and improve their lot through some sort of warfare. So that’s part of what’s happening with all this.

I mean, the Syrian civil war, several people have written about that and how there’s a clear climatological element to that. Not that you would ascribe the entire causality to that, but there is definitely a climatological element to how the Syrian civil war happened. There was a drought, Sunni farmers are thrown off the land. At the same time that there’s a drought, there’s austerity measures being imposed by the Assad regime, it’s trying to curry favor with the West. These Sunni farmers become weaponized urban proletarians and then they rebel in the name of religion against this Alawite elites. But you could see underneath it, there’s this element of an environmental crisis that’s pushing it as well.

DHARNA NOOR: In your latest article in Jacobin, you say that we have the technology we need to save civilization from the climate crisis, globally. But you also say that there’s no way that the profit motive or market relations can bring this technology to scale. Why is that? And if that’s true, can anything realistically be done to protect people from future extreme weather events?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. Government action is required. And the fact of the matter is that capitalism depends very heavily on a kind of hidden-in-plain-sight socialism, the public sector. It’s constantly receiving subsidies. It’s constantly being reproduced. No society has ever been what Karl Polanyi described as a market society where really everything was governed according to the laws of the market. But we’re in denial about the importance of the public sector. So if the public sectors throughout the world took action, we could deal with this.
Some of the key technology that I think people should know about is that in Iceland they’ve created a way of … what’s called enhanced weather. They have created a way to turn, in under two years, CO2, carbon dioxide, as a critical gas into essentially limestone. So the problem with CO2 sequestering has always been: How do you prevent it? It’s a poisonous, odorless gas, how do you prevent it from leaking out? This is a pretty incredible technology. It involves the basically an acidic mixture of water with CO2 pumped into it, forced down into basalt rock formations. Basalt rock is like one of the most common forms of rock on Earth. So we have actually, the technology exists to start stripping CO2 out of the atmosphere much faster than just planting trees could do. We can actually store it safely. We have commercial-scale solar, wind. We have the electrical grids. We have electric vehicles. It’s not like all this stuff has to be invented.

Even here in the United States, we actually have the laws we need. The environmental, sorry, the Clean Air Act, as amended by a lawsuit called Massachusetts versus EPA, requires that the federal government take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And unfortunately, the Obama administration sort of ignored this. And you know the Trump administration isn’t gonna do anything about it. But unfortunately also, a lot of us environmentalists ignored it. We were off trying to target corporations directly or trying to divest from university boards rather than pressuring public officials and the state to do what it must and what it inevitably does, which is plan and guide the economy.

So capitalism is totally dependent on planning and subsidy. There’s just a huge kind of denial about that. And part of what we have to do to deal with climate change is rip away this veil of the omniscient and omnipotent market to reveal it for what it is, which is a mixed economy at the heart of which is the public sector and the state making crucial decisions, subsidizing certain industries, penalizing other industries. And we need to take control of these mechanisms of policy and use this technology to accept the fact that we’re an environment-making species. We are currently remaking our environment unconsciously, unwittingly, allowing the profit motives of corporations, particularly fossil fuel corporations, to drive how we make the environment.

But we have the ability to actually make a livable environment for ourselves. But we need to overcome fear of technology. We can’t see it as a panacea. We need to be honest about what the role of the state is. We need to be honest about the need for short-term reforms and think about how that fits into long-term social change. We can’t just wait for long-term social change. We can’t just say, “Well, under socialism everything will be better,” because that’s maybe not always the case. I’m a socialist. I support socialism, but I will also be the first to admit that we have plenty of examples of socialist economies that have failed to decarbonize. So the pieces are all here, we just have to start pressuring and articulating.

And one other thing, there’s tons of money, right. The problem in capitalism is the over accumulation of wealth. The reason there are crashes is because there are bubbles. There’s too much capital that’s accumulated, and there aren’t enough productive, profitable outlets to absorb all this investment. So the money goes into stock markets and bids up these fictitious assets, and then it collapses, right. So there’s money out there if states were willing to take it or threaten taking it and invite capitalists to build out wind farms, et cetera, et cetera, and say: Look, you either shift your investments out of fossil fuels into these sectors, or we start taxing you at 90%, you decide. Everything we need is in place to really start dealing with this problem.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Christian Parenti, thank you so much for joining us today, and we hope to hear from you again soon.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you. Good luck.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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