Saturday, August 23, 2014

The tragedy of climate politics, in one map

"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps," said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announcing new rules on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. "This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs."

That's A+ speechwriting. And it's even correct, to an extent. Climate change is already having a meaningful impact on the United States and will continue to do so. What's more, the coal and gasoline burning that account for the bulk of our climate pollution also create numerous other health hazards. There are concrete, practical, down-to-earth reasons focused on the lives of the American people to act.

To a point.


Check out this map published recently by the bond rating firm Standard & Poor and discussed by Zack Beauchamp on Vox.

It shows that in the grand scheme of things, Americans are considerably less vulnerable to the impact of climate change than Indians or Vietnamese or Indonesians or Bangladeshis. Very few of us are subsistence farmers. Relatively few of us live in river deltas, flood plains, or small islands. We are rich enough to be able to feasibly undertake massive engineering projects to safeguard our at-risk population centers. And the country is sufficiently large and sparsely populated that people can move around in response to climate shocks.

A purely selfish American concerned about local economies and jobs shouldn't be indifferent to the threat of climate change, but there are a couple of billion people — primarily in African and southern Asia — who should be even more alarmed.

The people in those countries don't get a vote in congress. A regulator trying to make the common-sense case for action doesn't invoke their interests. But they are impacted by the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the burning of coal and gasoline in the United States. Making the problem even more devilishly difficult, it's not just that America's actions impact people who don't live here, China's do as well. While the United States is still the world leader in overall historic contribution to the climate change problem, China surpassed us years ago as the number one contributor of new pollution.

Our political system is reasonably well-designed to handle local threats to local interests. And McCarthy has to operate inside that system. That's why she said what she said. But the reality of the climate change problem is much scarier than that — it's a global threat to worldwide interests, and the people with the most at stake don't get a vote.

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