Last week, while Hurricane Ian was threatening to obliterate the Gulf and Atlantic seaboards, Vladimir Putin was threatening nuclear war in Eastern Europe. Ian tragically took lives and ruined homes of thousands, while Putin, depending on NATO’s response, could deliver a radioactive world to millions.
A thousand-year storm in the Atlantic and an unhinged dictator in Russia may seem like unrelated calamities, but the cause of their escalation (lust for power) and effect (mass destruction) are the same.
The causal link between Putin’s lust for power and the devastation in Ukraine is obvious. Putin obsesses over lost Russian glory, indistinguishable from his own, which he will “restore” by invading neighbors. He will transform Ukraine into a bloody pile of rocks rather than let it co-exist next-door because a murderous dictator can’t have democracy lurking on his border, showing off its freedom to any Russian who pulls back the curtain.
Less obvious is the causal link between western leaders’ lust for power and the looming climate cataclysm, because it requires a grasp of both science and campaign financing.
Most Americans now see the evidence of a changing climate. It is widely understood that carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels is bonding in the atmosphere, trapping heat, causing global temperatures to rise. Increasing temperatures, in turn, have caused sea levels to rise. According to tidal gauge data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels near the southern US border have already risen eight inches since 1950, and will rise considerably more — up to 18 inches — over the next 30 years.
Higher temperatures and sea levels bring more extreme weather. The world has warmed 2 degrees since industrialization, and every 2 degrees adds 8% more water to the atmosphere. More water in the air increases deadly flooding and storm surge. On average, floods now are 30% worse than storm models from 2000-2013. Hurricane Ian delivered a terrifying wall-of-water surge 12 feet high, shoving thousands of houses off their foundations, crashing them into other buildings like bumper cars.
Aside from water, hurricane force is also intensifying. Although reliable measurements of hurricane strength only go back about 40 years, when weather satellites began tracking storm intensity, hurricanes have quickly grown stronger. The likelihood that a cyclone will develop “major hurricane” wind has risen about 25% since measurements began in 1979.
Extreme heat, deadly wildfires, droughts, and flash floods are also increasing— fast. The First Street Foundation operates a peer-reviewed climate model to assess real dollar climate risk for real estate developers and private insurers. The model inputs atmospheric data from high-resolution measurements of canopy cover, solid surfaces, water penetration, land surface temperatures and proximity to water, overlayed with varying greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Their model shows that 1 in 6 Americans, half of whom are in Southern states, and nearly 80 million properties, face significant risk of wildfire.
The model, free to anyone to search by zipcode, also predicts extreme heat events. It projects that 8.1 million residents in 50 US counties will experience temperatures above 125 degrees Farenheit next year. A heat index of 125 degrees, which factors humidity, makes human heat stroke “highly likely.” Within 30 years, nearly two-thirds of Americans will endure perilous heat waves as an “extreme heat belt” expands throughout the central U.S. According to the National Weather Service, Indiana and Illinois, not typically considered hot spots, will endure more than 70 consecutive days per year when temperatures exceed 100 degrees.
Costs to maintain infrastructure will be staggering as well, as extreme wind, water and heat overtax essential infrastructure. Highways, bridges, train tracks, roads, water pipes, air strips, dams and reservoirs — and the grid — can collapse. Dow Jones, Marketwatch, and the Deloitte Center for Sustainable Progress released a report estimating that the cost of inaction on climate change will hit $178 trillion over the next 50 years.
In a grotesque affirmation of Darwinism, the GOP has turned climate projections into a culture war, even in states prone to the worst effects. When U.S. Senator Rick Scott was governor of Florida, he prohibited state employees from using the term climate change. Current governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis describes himself as “not a global warming person,” even as his state’s flooding costs are predicted to rise to $26 billion by 2045. Recently asked about his plans to protect coastal cities from the rising ocean, DeSantis said climate change was “left-wing stuff” promoted by people trying to “smuggle in their ideology.” He did not explain how wanting a dry home became an ideology in need of smuggling, but he did promise that Florida’s $270 million flooding mitigation money wouldn’t “go for any left-wing stuff.”
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DeSantis’ don’t-say-gay obsession now officially extends to don’t-say-science. Under DeSantis’ “anti-woke” initiative, Florida now prohibits state investments in companies that use environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings in investment decisions, effectively penalizing companies for climate awareness. Even as most Florida insurance firms face insolvency from climate-related claims over the past two years, Florida’s GOP literally punishes companies for calculating climate risk.
Although it hails predominantly from the south, anti-science ignorance has spread across the country like cancer, only it’s more deadly. In West Virginia, Texas, Utah and Idaho, Republican lawmakers have launched an aggressive campaign to punish companies for trying to reduce greenhouse gases to reduce climate warming. A recent New York Times investigation showed a similar push by over two dozen GOP state treasurers, who are using state pension investment strategies to punish climate action. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Wells Fargo have already been barred from government contracts for the sin of reducing their investments in coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel contributing to climate change.
Climatologists began warning that carbon emissions were trapping heat in the 1950s. Congress can be forgiven for climate inaction through the 1970s because the science was still relatively new, and relied on bulky computer processing systems like Fortran. Climate ignorance was also guaranteed by big oil’s criminal and well-funded misinformation campaign.
But in 2022, the vast majority of ranking GOP members admit climate change is caused by fossil fuels, yet they still refuse to act because it will risk hundreds of millions in annual campaign contributions. Some, like Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas, claim clean energy will hurt the oil industry, but this is pretext. Big oil is the biggest investor in renewable energy, because it is more profitable than oil by far. Transitioning equipment from drill rigs to turbines, battery, transmission and grid upgrades will be expensive in the short term, but wildly profitable in the long. The suicidal rub is that even temporarily reduced profits will result in significantly reduced campaign contributions to the GOP in any upcoming election cycle, and most politicians play only to the pending election, not the one after.
Putin’s nuclear war could make extreme weather concerns irrelevant. An apocalyptic climate could also make nuclear war irrelevant, as tribal bands emerge to fight over livable patches of land and water, caveman style.
Putin forcing scared young conscripts to become hamburger is horrifying and insane, but so is forcing our children to live on a burning planet.
Sabrina Haake, a Chicago attorney who lives in Gary, is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.