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Spring Dividend?

by Richard H. Pershan

December 13, 2015

I raked leaves today, aside my snug Connecticut home, surrounded by bird chirps and the yellow and green spangle of various bushes (rhododendrons budded to a second flowering). Warmly (read sweatily) working away in shorts and shirtsleeves, I pondered what E.B. White might think of my great good fortune, this spring dividend of global warming smack in the middle of December. White, a champion of the environment, a man who reported on the effects of Strontium 43, of nuclear fallout, black lung and artificial coloring dyes, who warned us of these man made plagues and enjoyed a principled and keen admiration of  flora and fauna,  would surely recognize the big fat lie of something too good to be true.

For most of us (except few, like the Koch brothers) our lives and the effect of our efforts at reducing our warming, are puny. But together, in an elected government and the union of elected governments (read: the Paris Conference of Parties which concluded last week), the effects can be significant. They must be if our globe with our descendants upon it, are to survive.

What amazes about the Koch Brothers is their gluttonous, unreasoning selfishness. Like the Rockefellers, they have:

a) made billions through fossil fuels

b) never paid the environmental tax due on their billions

c) have a cash cushion they and their progeny can live off forever.

Doing the right thing now (d) would be an admission of a, b, and c. But (d) is exactly what  the Rockefeller family (Standard Oil) and Norway (North Sea Oil) have done -- divesting carbon shares and promoting clean energy.

Since the Industrial Revolution the world has  pumped over  4,409,245,243,700 pounds  of carbon into the atmosphere – most in the last thirty years, a vast majority of that by Americans, or in the interest (read: our oil, our clothes, our phones) of Americans.

What do I think (what would White think?), when the business institutions of our country, having sounded (since 1896) the Dow Jones bells at 100 and 200 and 400 and now even 18,000, have mined and pumped trillions of tons of coal and oil and gas out of the ground in feats of exquisite ingenuity. But have paid nothing for the environmental carnage. Who have extracted carbon from the most inhospitable ocean floors, from Africa and the Middle East, but have lied and obfuscated (directly and indirectly and through flacks and elected mouthpieces in the halls of government) about the results of the carbon they have loosed into the atmosphere. Who have denied this coming home to roost: of global warming so long and completely unpaid for.

What would White (so expert too in the come-uppences of foreign policy) tell the people of the Middle East and other largely Moslem fossil host countries, whose wealth and resources we have plundered, without fair compensation? (Fairly typical,  is the 1901 Persian contract described in Daniel Yergen’s masterpiece, The Prize, whereby BP’s predecessor paid 16% to the Shah, and of course, nothing to the people.) What would White say to his and my alma maters (Cornell and Yale) who refuse to divest fossil stocks, or even set up a going forward green investment fund? Or worse, of our United States which does not put in place any carbon cap or carbon tax, and therefore whose vehicle sales in 2015 produced the greatest revenues to the most guzzling SUVs (which Congress has seen fit to remove from the “car” efficiency standards).

Scientists currently predict Shanghai, one of the world’s largest cities (current population 24 million) will be underwater by the century’s end, the Middle East, whose wealth much of this was, will be uninhabitable by the same date, Venice, Miami Beach, also. (Floods will come fairly soon for much of the rest of humanity, since 50% of us, worldwide, live coastal.) Molecular science is a complicated thing. A carbon molecule, once launched is incredibly permanent, more so, in fact, for a methane molecule than for one launched from oil. In either case, minimally for thousands of years.

The price of carbon, in real terms (in real destruction) is arguably $100 today, rising to $200 very soon (perhaps 50 years out) as more and more carbon gets launched, irretrievably, into the atmosphere. Pay now, or pay more, later, as the adage has it.

But what sign do we show, today, of being able to curb ourselves? What signs do our political leaders show, of restraining us? If binge eating, watching, drinking, violence and now carbon burning, are our American trademarks, we are desperately in need of regulation. But Congress brings us none. For the US to implement the deal it inked last week in Paris, it needs to implement a carbon tax. Yesterday. 

Further, the Paris Agreement, if fully enacted, provides reductions which fall far short of keeping us under the so called survival limit of  2 degrees C.  All 195 Paris signatories need a carbon tax, and then we all need to go cold “fossil” turkey immediately.

All the school shootings, and police violence and 9/11’s are nothing compared to the apocalypse that awaits our children and grandchildren -- if we don’t get our house in order.

The 60 million refugees in motion today (and we fear receiving a hand full of  Syrians!) are a speck in the world’s population compared to the numbers to be released when all of the Middle East and much of Africa are hollowed out to a dessert, when South China is underwater, when NY and Miami are depopulated by the  “apres moi” deluge.

We spew forth carbon, as Americans, at 40 times the level of a citizen of Afghanistan or Senegal, and yet we refuse to restrain ourselves, and our elected leaders refuse to implement laws to compel us.

Today, when I brush the rhododendron to free oak leaves enmeshed in it, the leaves squirm free, and the bush swings back neatly, like elastic, in a deft demonstration of nature’s resiliency. How long will these glorious bushes and the other nuanced systems of sap and molecule, species and environment,  survive?  How far, I think, can they rebound, before they snap?   From what temperature, before they are lost?

What could be made of this spring dividend of global warming (can we in good conscience, in any conscience enjoy it?), before the final, irremediable furnace?