Founder and President
International Centre for Earth Simulation
Why is it that Americans have so much trouble focusing on the seriousness of the environmental crisis?
The lack of concern about the environment in the United States is a temporary situation and over time we will see the United States rebalance its economic and developmental priorities. The United States has been a leading nation with regard to environmental issues. The US was a leader in establishing national parks and designated protected areas and established the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, which has been a model for others. Historically, the United States has done well in environmental policy.
For the moment, however, the forces at play in Washington D.C. are mostly in the hands of Wall Street, big banks and large corporations, and those forces have a very narrow agenda that they intend to pursue – perhaps at any cost. The Wall Street model for the economy is based on continuously improving short-term, quarterly profitability, which has become an underlying driver of policy formation ad nausea. If you have 3000 lobbyist from Wall Street descending on 600 law makers, that makes for a five to one ratio. You can imagine who is going to dominate the argument. Ultimately the United States has the best legal system that money can buy, and it is indeed bought and paid for!
I suspect that Wall Street has overdone it with their emphasis on the financial bottom line, reinforced by short-sighted accounting rules such as FASB and IAS, neither of which take into account the real cost to the environment in doing business – omitting the true cost of resource depletion and the true cost of emissions clean-up, for example. Wall Street has thus created a bit of a leadership crisis through its poor behavior in the United States – and unfortunately, it is being copied around the world.
Asia did have a far more positive model, as Asia tends to understand issues of the social contribution of organizations as something more valuable than profit – a derivative of 2500 years of Confucian thinking. But the Wall Street model has done much to change Asia in recent years.
Japanese companies used to say, “the reality of cash is better than the shadow of profit.” Cash flow was more substantial because profit is something that can be manipulated—which is exactly what banks have done recently. We have moved away from that approach in Asia for now, largely because Asia actually benefits from the US outsourcing, which itself is a derivative of the Wall Street model. But ultimately I believe, Asia will bring its strong tradition and emphasis on the importance of the social role as a way to move beyond today’s Wall Street corporate model. Only time will tell.
Also, the situation is slowly changing for the better in the United States today. The public is somewhat wising up to this situation in which law is up for sale, and a serious rebalancing of the system is only a matter of time. So I see the whole process as a short-term issue that may last for one more generation, at most. But of course this period could still be quite harmful, especially as serious environmental challenges mount. And if you add massive military spending to the economic paradigm of today, it will certainly be hard to back away from the military-industrial-financial complex that has been built.
So why has the military had so much trouble taking climate change seriously?
I can only think that the environment will become an increasingly important priority for the military as well. You only need a few more super storms like Sandy and Katrina to change perceptions in the population as a whole, and specifically for the military. Increasingly, national security is highly impacted by environmental stability and resilience to local disasters. I understand there is a bill pending for something like 60 billion dollars to clean up after Hurricane Sandy. That is a pretty large commitment of funds, almost half what the US will spend on Afghanistan in 2013.
Or the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, which has had a 40 billion initial cost, but will more likely cost more than 100 billion long term – as did the combined Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma of 2005. So we are talking about ecological disasters that weigh in at 100 billion dollars a pop. Those sorts of disasters are going to start changing perspectives in the Pentagon – because they clearly put the entire nation at risk. Additionally, the rise of sea level along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard threatens to create major future costs. Big money to protect cities located on the coasts will soon be required. Norfolk, Virginia for example, is home to the only nuclear aircraft carrier base on the East Coast and that city is already suffering a serious flood problem. The costs of dealing with these problems will force United States agencies to put more and more capital into protecting coastal cities as well as critical infrastructure, and this shift will definitely impact overall strategic thinking.
As for the US West Coast, the issue here is more the potential of subduction generated tsunami damage. Here we should worry about an M9 quake and corresponding tsunami damage, much like what was caused by the March 2011 Tohoku subduction zone quake near Japan. The Cascadian subduction zone and nearby Bremerton nuclear submarine base in Puget Sound would be a case in point.
Globally speaking, we are all facing a water issue, an air issue, a soil issue and a multitude of socio-economic issues. However, in the case of the United States, the core centers of civilization are located in the most vulnerable parts of the nation, and few protective defenses have been built: New York, Boston and Los Angeles for example, are sitting on coastlines and/or fault lines. I won’t bring up the subject of the siting of the 100+ US nuclear reactors, but there are similar issues on this front as well.
Further with respect to environmental-based security, the United States is currently suffering from a persistent drought which has had a terrible impact on its agricultural production. There are in fact signs from the climate modeling community that this drought could very well stretch out for another 50 years, which would be an environmental disaster that no one was prepared for – and the consequences would be rather frightening. If the United States cannot feed the world like it has done for the last 50 years, we will all experience major rebalancing and systemic adjustments. We can hardly imagine the disruption to global commodities market if it turns out that because of this drought situation the US cannot even feed itself!
Finally, there is one more development that will rapidly change US thinking about security and the environment. Since the end of World War II the United States has put great emphasis on defending supply lines and sea lanes for imported oil from the Middle East and elsewhere. But now American corporations are making a massive investment in local fracking as a means of bringing up US oil and gas from very deep down. This process promises to create US energy independence within the next twenty years. In neighboring Canada, there is similar race for development of the Alberta oil sands. Both of these efforts will most likely work together in establishing a new energy independence for the United States.
No doubt, the result of such energy independence will see a major change in US security thinking. Many Americans will see it as positive in that the nation does not have to keep defending foreign oil supply routes, and one can reduce massive trade deficits, to boot. On the downside however, burning that local oil and gas is still burning fossil fuel, and the global environmental consequences remain the same. I see the whole process as a two edged sword, therefore.
But finding large amounts of fossil fuels at home will feel like a positive, at first blush, even though the issues of local water contamination related to fracking, and possible seismic effects remain as major issues that must be resolved. So far, the technology is not yet proven completely safe, but perhaps it can be made safer in the near future. The US is indeed brilliant when it comes to evolving technology forward.
In summary, building a secure, resilient, sustainable society is clearly an emerging priority for the US – but like a big ship, the nation has a wide turning radius.