Wednesday, August 20, 2014

US Climate Change Policy: Domestic and Foreign

The Planet's Dark Horizon
Don't bother to pack a calendar
for your escape to the mountains.

In the darkest days of the Cold War's "Mutually Assured Destruction," most residents of any of the "bombing target" countries would stoically offer up an over simplified prognosis of what such a thermo-nuclear war would leave in its wake. "It would be the end of the world."

This was never the case, although it would certainly be the end of any world recently known to humans. Fatal casualties from a full on nuclear exchange might, over time, would have ranged close to the billion plus mark, modern technology and economic structures would be vaporized and civil society would become a thing of the past around the globe, but humans would continue to exist in what inhabitable regions the planet continued to offer, and things might slowly begin to return to where they had been in the pre-war days.

This introduction to the post might, at first, appear a "little overly dramatic," but it sets the stage for the kinds of questions we should be considering with respect to the climate catastrophe presently bearing down on us.

Matters really have grown precarious indeed. What approaches will herald neither the end of the world nor the complete decimation of humanity. It's not THAT kind of fictional, cinematic "dark horizon," although as we endure its more or less permanent arrival, we might gradually become less convinced.

"Once you've taken your seat on the train, and it's pulled away from the station, you're going where the train's going."

The United States will, most likely, still be one of the planet's largest economies when climate change begins to patiently unravel things. As such, the country will be confronted continually with policy decisions as the catastrophic conditions approach and even more direly once their inevitable consequences materialize all around us -- and, by the way, materialize here, too.

Darn. Things were going along so well. [image source]
Speculating about this country's state and international standing when the climate crisis finally begins to ebb away in a few decades is a task for a significantly higher pay grade than MeanMesa's. However, all along the way the US will still face the daunting challenge of formulating policy to establish our national direction, that is, policy in both the domestic sense and the international sense.

There have been some "not so reassuring" political mumblings about what policies might be, but in almost every case when the political risk of actually verbalizing such foresight has been taken, the climate change consequences to which it is addressed seem both woefully under stated and woefully optimistic. This is clearly a case of "We are going to enter thisDo we want to take it the hard way or the easy way?"

The hard way amounts to continuing with our present political paralysis, drenched in denial, contention regarding facts or, ironically, our growing "artificial certainty" that the situation is hopeless.

On the other hand if there is, actually, an "easy way," it will, reasonably, have to be based on a far more objective analysis of our assets, capabilities and deficiencies -- especially with respect to mitigating the rather frightening, likely consequences we will unavoidably be facing. Even if the "easy" solutions are pursued diligently, living through them will probably still not seem to be particularly "easy."

So, let's take a speculative look at what the future apparently hold for us.

The "Fly in the Ointment"
We might not normally choose to confront this as an oligarchy, but...

MeanMesa's tired old eyes see what coming as basically two grave threats -- grave not in the sense that they might possibly be terminally grave should they materialize, but rather grave in the sense that they are, currently, materializing. While this "first nip of the wringer" is, admittedly, none too pleasant, we will all most likely look back at 2014 as being in "the good old days."

This post is not any sort of overly dramatic polemic about the "dark horizon," but we need to spend just a little time on that depressing subject to make the remainder a little more coherent. In any event there is no shortage whatsoever of "doom and gloom" purveyors dedicating every breathless, frantic word to an endless nightmare of cheaply crafted hyperbole so there's little to be gained by MeanMesa joining in with that dismal chorus.

The two "grave threats" are, as is historically usually the case, made more grave by their simultaneity. The first is the gradual planet wide collapse into oligarchy, and the second is the now inevitable chaos and mayhem which will unavoidably accompany the climate change catastrophe as its severity begins to suddenly increase exponentially in the next few decades. The "nastiness" of the two derives from the fact that they are "reciprocal feeders."

As Scylla, the oligarchs' chances of actually taking over entirely have really only been made possibly feasible in an environment of world wide, violent, chaotic desperation. As Charybdis the crushing effects of climate change might have been mitigated significantly if the oligarchs had not stubbornly refused to free up the resources now stranded in their dynastic fantasies to combat it. The resulting brutalized politics driven by craven greed and stoic hopelessness haven't helped all that much, either.

Flitting about between these two classical harpies is a third difficulty. While the two "big ones" mentioned above are already in the delivery truck with our name on the label, the arrival date for this third one remains somewhat uncertain. It may occur before the climate collapses or afterward or not at all. It is, however, important that we include it in our predictive calculation.

What it it? The odds seem to be increasing steadily that the United States is going to have another civil war.

The oligarchs had no choice but to purchase the media and institute a steady propaganda campaign aimed at permanently dividing the American population. The think tanks were set into motion decades ago, patiently supported by billions of dollars worth of oligarchic cash and driven toward this inevitably bloody aim by the unrelenting raw ambition of the likes of the Addelsons, Kochs, Simpsons and others.

Should the civil war begin before the climate collapse, the billionaires will handily present themselves as the only remaining power great enough to restore calm. If the civil war begins amid the chaotic mayhem after the consequences of climate change have reduced the populous to a state of frantic, mindless survivalism, the oligarchs' task will only be made easier. The outcome in either scenario has a common thread.

The resources to resolve or mitigate the climate collapse will belong to the oligarchs. They will be the engine of the grisly Malthusian Correction described in the paper.

At this point, if anyone is speculating that MeanMesa has too recently read through that old post "Managing Global Warming Solutions," he would be right. [Link to the post here.] MeanMesa could not possibly imagine a happier future moment than the one when the contents of that paper could be comfortably discharged as an inaccuracy or exaggeration, but its predictions loom larger now than ever.

This post deals with the prospect of the United States either rolling dumb struck into the craw of the calamity or possibly mitigating some the consequences or even actually solving some part of the upcoming catastrophe. After all, we used to claim to be doing such things rather routinely. Further, if this is what can be the anticipated future in the relatively stable United States, the almost inevitable likelihood of something similar -- or worse -- can be expected just about every where else.

The Very Tricky Job of Improving Things
Know when to hold 'em,
know when to fold 'em, 
and know when to just walk away.

It is quite sensible to peer ahead in the years of climactic consequences approaching us. The precise details of the consequences remain indeterminate at the moment, but formulating a general collection of highlights likely to accompany the crisis is hardly rocket science. Having in hand a rough statement of policy as these begin to emerge is, in fact, quite sensible.

The questions are easy enough.

How will the United States respond to catastrophic climate induced disasters around the world -- in fact, when will the US respond at all? In the cases when no response is the course dictated by policy, what will be the social and political ramifications domestically? It may be a good time to consider an historical example of a US response in such a situation which worked out well.

As recently as a few decades ago the United States Congress would actually authorize major expenditures to address disasters unfolding internationally. For visitors too young to recall such programs, take a look at this excerpt from a article titled "Food for Peace." [Read the entire article  here.]

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed what was then known as the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, or Public Law 480. In 1961, the law got another name when President Kennedy expanded the program and renamed it "Food for Peace."

JFK set out the logic for the program saying, "Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want."

Yet the program has always had a purpose beyond the humanitarian one. As Eisenhower said, the legislation will "lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and people of other lands."

In other words, let's help our farmers at the same time as we help hungry people in places that might breed war and terrorism without our help.

Food for Peace was actually an outgrowth of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild war torn countries after World War II. So, in the early years, most of the food aid went to Italy, Japan, Germany, Austria, England and Finland.

Then, as those countries rebuilt and droughts, local wars and other emergencies developed in other places, the list of recipient countries changed and expanded. Recipient countries have included most of Europe, all of Africa, the Mid East, Asia, South and Central America, Mongolia and even Russia. Since 1954, 135 countries have received food through the program.

In fact, as a young man, MeanMesa watched steam locomotives pulling trains a mile long  --comprised entirely of full grain gondolas -- across the plains of SW Kansas daily, transporting US grain to the West Coast for shipment to India in the mid 1950's.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, India was the largest recipient of American food aid. The level of aid was highest in the 60s when over $1.5 billion in aid helped stave off starvation in the subcontinent. In addition to providing direct aid, the Food for Peace program worked closely with Green Revolution programs that introduced new varieties of wheat and rice to the country. Today, India is close to graduating from foreign food aid altogether. [article written 2008]

Importantly, however, the article continues.

In recent years, the program has emphasized longer-term development projects that build the agricultural ability of the recipient countries. In a sense, this is an extension of the Green Revolution approach to help countries become self-sufficient for their own food.

This last part is central to understanding the decision about how much and what kind of such aid was, then, appropriate for US intervention in global trouble spots. It will be a substantially different set of parameters which will determine what will be an appropriate policy given the collapsing prognosis of sufficiency in the global future. The concept of "emergency" food aid has been quite sensible and compassionate in past conditions, but the scope of the food production damage which will almost inevitably accompany the climate change calamity approaching now fundamentally changes the metric of what's possible.

The questions directing US policy in this future will be much less influenced by the traditional American compassion and much more influenced by the various possibilities to stabilize what we may assume will be a steady descent into wide spread violence abroad. If US policy to provide food aid continues at all, it will target the inevitable threats to US interests as its first priority.

Both economic and agricultural resources will be strained with the resource drain of food assistance from the US and the traditional other sources we have seen in the past. Adding the turbulent politics -- domestic and foreign -- which will unavoidably accompany the various crises will only aggravate the issue further.

Further, the character and compassion of the US Congress has reached a depressing nadir already. The increased stress and tension of the coming catastrophe do not bode well for the prospects of any sort of "spiritual rehabilitation" into a more altruistic state. Considering the likely conditions at the kitchen tables around the country, there will not likely be any popular opinion driving the politics into anything more altruistic, either.

Getting Ready -- 
the First Step in Getting Through It
We've already seen how stupid we look when we have absolutely no plan...

MeanMesa is inclined to think that making some decisions now -- no matter how difficult -- will be a good start in planning how the US will respond in the future. We need to collectively accept the reality that US food aid [surpluses] in the near future will become quite limited and much more critically directed than ever before if it remains possible at all. We have to "pick" our projects, and no matter how cold and compassion-less it might seem now, we will be forced to "pick" assistance goals and recipients which can boost our own odds of survival, leaving the rest to their fate.

Please note here, MeanMesa  mentioned "...our own odds of survival," and did NOT mention "...our own odds for prosperity." Although the surviving oligarchs might consider this unfolding nightmare to be "a career opportunity," the rest of us would probably do well to avoid that idea.

Such a thoughtful approach will be quite difficult -- if not impossible -- to comprehend for a Congress with the ideals and vision constantly dominated by the priorities of an oligarchy. Although the current political penchant for false austerity may be frustrating and painfully uncomfortable for most Americans, the future version of such "austerity justifying" arguments in an environment of violent, desperate global crisis is what will make 2014 look like those "good old days" as mentioned earlier.

In a decade or two US international trade treaties will deal mainly with guarantees to access of foreign crop sales, while US military interventions will be directed at protecting food producing treaty partners from other "hungry folks" with an eye of those harvests, an eye on the irrigation water that made them possible or perhaps just a really bad attitude from being so hungry and thirsty that they feel like raising hell. Given the continuing collapse of the US economy, we might hope that by this time prudent budgeting may have actually begun to limit the "devil may care" approach currently taken as valid "US interests" are determined internationally. "US interests" will gradually come to deal almost exclusively with market access to food exports or the military protection of such access or for the countries providing the food.

The global location of theoretically arable lands will not change, but food will be produced new areas of the planet. The rainfall map -- indicating the climate's tendencies to provide adequate rainfall for agricultural production is shifting such locations steadily -- with the result of re-locating the "bread baskets" of the world. But it won't be a matter of simply moving food along different routes or distances to sustain US access to the market. Every complicating factor imaginable will fall into play -- politics, economics and security for starters, but "settling old grudges" will inevitably appear sooner or later.

Congress, Climate Change and the States
An opportunity for phony GOP austerity to flourish violently at home

Of course, the consequences of the climate catastrophe will not be limited to other areas of the planet. Within the borders of the United States we should expect significant migrations of populations. At the time of this post, the western regions of the US have already entered into multiple years of record drought while regions receiving more rain than usual are submerged under neglected infrastructure which was designed for a different climate decades ago.

The western agricultural producing states -- generally a collection of states from Kansas to California -- have also begun to experience the first taste of lowered production due to the changing climate. MeanMesa predicts, quite comfortably, that we should expect these conditions to steadily deteriorate further.

So, where does the "Congress" part enter the picture?

The specific difficulties that states will begin to experience will not be structurally homogeneous. Dwindling and expanding regional populations will wreak havoc in a myriad of ways for states. Some state budgets will buckle under the burden of increasingly bad economies, while others will find their economies growing at unmanageable rates. At this point it is beginning to look like the Southeastern US will benefit most from more seasonable climates -- including rain fall -- while being battered by increasingly severe hurricanes.

In the midst of this state by state mayhem, the Congress will face the task of allocating reducing resources to competing state governments. The old Congressional "bring home the bacon" pork barrel largess might continue on its present brutally bi-partisan "winner take all" rampage for a while, but in time there will be states literally abandoned to the drought, depopulated and crying for help just to sustain whatever is left.

Of course given a little thoughtful insight into the science of the matter, Congress could, actually, do quite a lot to mitigate some of the inevitable pain, but, faced with the prospect of investing in the future of the country, the oligarchs won't have a bit of it. The current penchant for cravenly suffocating what remains of the economy after 2008 is apparently a fait accompli until the census initiates redistricting in 2020. In the intervening years, this heralds the possibility of some "real losers" with respect to states so seriously impacted that they effectively go out of business, turn off the lights and lock the doors.

Hardly a picture suggesting political stability of any kind.

The very fabric of the nation now appears to be headed for an unprecedented challenge. The crippling death grip of the oligarchs and their Republican Party ruined the nation's economy six years ago, and the same bunch now stands, salivating, at the prospect of extracting whatever is left. In better times we could have probably recovered from this given time, but in this instance, we will still be struggling under the same parasitic overlords as the climate catastrophe descends in earnest.

The United States will face that dismal dawn essentially as a Third World country.

Save what money you can. Eat a little extra when possible -- and relish it. Love your family just a little more and get ready. Whatever you do, keep voting!

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