The New Face of the Welfare State

How climate change could make us all a bunch of freeloaders


A Gallup Poll out today confirms that only 35% of Americans worry a great deal about climate change, up only 2 points from last year.

It’s widely apparent that California is still in the throes of a historic drought.  Some experts suggest it’s the worst in five hundred years and considering California’s population and water resources in the sixteenth century one can surmise that this is the worst it’s been.   In February President Obama, meeting with farmers and thirsty community members in Fresno, CA allocated $183 million in much needed water aid to farmers, livestock and community food banks.  That payout is only a fraction of the cost a violently changing climate in California is causing.  Last summer the Yosemite Rim fire, California’s largest wildfire ever, cost nearly $100 million.  These are just two examples, in one year, in this one state.  In a world where money dictates all activity and in a society which regards the economy and job creation above all other issues, republicans and democrats alike must feel the sting of quenching California with cash.  Republicans, who liken government assistance to charity, must be especially steamed (republicans actually fought for more money to go to Central Valley farmers).   So why are the long term costs of climate change still being ignored in favor of shallow economic victories?

 California isn’t the only state with water issues.  Currently, not a single drop of water in the Colorado River reaches the ocean.  With the abysmal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, this becomes far from anecdotal.  Every major city in the southwest is at risk of water shortages and the future of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix are uncertain if not certainly doomed.  California in fact bargained to receive preferential treatment in the event of a drought putting Arizona most at risk. 

Still, the economy is the spine of all Washington issues.  The Keystone XL pipeline is frighteningly close to being green lit (there’s a pun there somewhere) under the argument that it will create 45,000 jobs which, according to the Environmental Resource Management’s report, will shrink to less than fifty jobs upon the completion of the pipeline.  Coal exportation is at an all-time high.  Mining towns in Wisconsin which fell to economic ruin when the mines were stripped clean decades earlier have considered breaking ground on a new massive one, destined to repeat the pattern.  John Boehner, shouting to remove the Delta Smelt from the endangered species list to free up water for California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Doing so could stop the smelt from playing a vital role in a complex ecosystem forever.  Meanwhile we mix millions of gallons of water with chemicals to pump into the earth, contaminate groundwater aquifers and extract more fossil fuels which will emit more carbon into the atmosphere because it could support 1.7 million jobs

The idea that the United States is a welfare state seems much more realistic when we are constantly faced with living conditions the world has literally never seen and forced to seek emergency aid to rebuild old systems which are responsible for the disasters in the first place. And what when there is no water?  What happens when $183 million gets you jack shit, the aquifers are pumped dry, there is no such thing as snow and desalination costs way too much to entertain?  What happens when disasters are so frequent there isn’t enough grey water and Soylent to go around?  The cost of humanitarian aid during natural disasters can only go up.  Wouldn’t those who look at government spending as a handout be in favor of mitigating the instances where distressed citizens would be in need of one?

Compared to the figures Big Oil and agribusiness rake in, a couple hundred million dollars isn’t a large sum.  But the Northridge Earthquake cost $42 billion and California is due for a big one, even more likely in the face of melting ice caps.  Katrina cost $81 billion and sea level rise is a politically conceded fight.  It’s obvious that between Bush and Obama, it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you come from, the environment will always take a back seat to “more pertinent issues”, but jobs or no jobs, climate change will be costly.  Whether you hug trees or pulverize them to print your own money, our changing ecology will cost more to our economy than either party wants to dole out.