Fiddling While the Planet Burns
The United States remains a big, powerful, wealthy country that is slowly hollowing out, breaking down. Meanwhile, on planet Earth, the global economy is up for grabs. Another meltdown is possible, as the European, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian economies all continue to take hits. Power relations have been changing rapidly, from the rise of Brazil in what was once Washington's "backyard" to the Chinese miracle (and the military muscle that goes with it). A largely American system that long helped keep the Greater Middle East, the energy heartlands of the globe, under grim, autocratic control is unraveling with unknown consequences. Above all, from increasingly iceless Arctic waters to ever more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and the acidification of the oceans, this planet is undergoing a remarkably rapid transformation based largely on the release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
Other than a few curious Republican comparisons of an American economy under the Democrats to "Greece," a near obsessive focus on the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens and three other Americans in Libya, and various denunciations of China as a currency manipulator, not a single one of these matters came up in any meaningful way in the election campaign. In other words, election 2012 boiled down to little more than a massive case of Washington-style denial. And don't for a second think that that's just an artifact of election year artifice.
Take climate change, which like the Arab Spring blasted its way into our unprepared midst in 2011-2012. There was the wildfire season of all seasons in a parching Southwest and West, a devastating drought that still hasn't fully lifted in the Midwestern breadbasket (or corncob) of the country, and a seemingly endless summer that may make this the hottest year on record for the continental United States. It was staggering and, if opinion polls are to be believed, noted by increasing numbers of concerned Americans who could literally feel the world changing around them.
And yet none of this made global warming an election issue. Month after month, it was The Great Unmentionable. The silence of emboldened Republicans plugging their drill-baby-drill and lay-those-pipelines policies and of cowed Democrats who convinced themselves that the issue was a no-win zone for the president proved deafening—until the campaign's last days. It was then, of course, that Hurricane Sandy, the "Frankenstorm," swept through my town and devastated New Jersey. It provided the extreme weather coup de grâce of 2012. (And yes, there's little doubt that climate-change-induced rising sea levels contributed to its fury.) Superstorm Sandy also revealed just how unprepared the U.S. infrastructure is for predicted climate-change events.
The extremity of Sandy and its 14-foot storm surge was stunning enough that global warming was suddenly forced out of the closet. It made magazine covers and gubernatorial press conferences. There was even a last-minute Romney vs. Sandy web ad ("Tell Mitt Romney: Climate Change Isn't a Joke"), and in his victory statement on election night, President Obama did manage to briefly acknowledge the changed post-Sandy moment, saying, "We want our children to live in an America that isn't... threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
Still, in just about every sense that matters in Washington, real planning for climate change is likely to remain off that table on which all "options" always sit. Expect the president to offer Shell further support for drilling in Arctic waters, expect a new push for the Keystone XL pipeline which will transport some of the "dirtiest" energy from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and so on.
Don't count on anyone doing the obvious: launching the sort of Apollo-style R&D program that once got us to the moon and might speed the U.S. and the planet toward an alternative energy economy, or investing real money in the sort of mitigation projects for the new weather paradigm that might prevent a coastal city like New York—or even Washington—from turning into an uninhabitable disaster zone in some not so distant future.
Climate science is certainly complex and filled with unknowns. As it happens, many of those unknowns increasingly seem focused on two questions: How extreme and how quickly? It's suggested that sea levels are already rising faster than predicted and some recent scientific studies indicate that, by century's end, the planet's average temperature could rise by up to eight degrees Fahrenheit, an almost unimaginable disaster for humanity.
Whatever the unknowns, certain things are obvious enough. Here, for instance, is a simple reality: any set of attempts, already ongoing, to make North America the "Saudi Arabia" of the twenty-first century in energy production are guaranteed to be a climate-change disaster. Unfortunately, this election ensures once again that, no matter what the planetary realities or the actual needs of this country, no significant money will flow into alteration or mitigation projects.
Among the truly bizarre aspects of this situation, one stands out: thanks in part to a long-term climate-change-denial campaign, well-funded by the giant energy companies, the subject has become "political." The idea that it is a liberal or left-wing "issue," rather than a global reality that must be dealt with, is now deeply embedded. And yet there may never have been a more basic conservative issue (at least in the older sense of the term): the preserving, above all else, of what is already most valuable in our lives. And what qualifies more for that than the health of the planet on which humanity "grew up"?
The phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" seems to catch something of the essence of this post-election moment—and it has special meaning when the fiddlers turn out to be slipping matches to the arsonists.
Just a week after the election, the Republican Party is already gearing up to produce a new, better-looking, more "diverse," better-marketed version of itself for the 2014 and 2016 Hispanic and Asian American "markets." The Democratic Party is no doubt following suit. In American politics these days, presidential elections last at least four years. The first poll for Iowa 2016 is already out. (Hillary's way ahead). Elections are the big business, sometimes just about the only significant political business Washington focuses on with any success, aided and abetted by the media. So look forward to the $7 billion or $8 billion or $9 billion elections to come and the ever-greater hoopla surrounding them.
But stop waiting for change, "big" or otherwise, to come from Washington. It won't. Don't misunderstand me: as the residents of the Midwestern drought zone and the Jersey shore now know all too well, change is coming, like it or not. If, however, you want this country to be something other than its instigator and its victim, if you want the U.S. to engage a world of danger (and also of opportunity), you'd better call yourself and your friends and neighbors to the colors. Don't wait for a Washington focused on its own well-being in 2014 or 2016. Mobilize yourself. It's time to occupy this country before it's blown away in a storm.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. You can see his recent interview with Bill Moyers on supersized politics and election 2012 by clicking here.
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