Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

The Thinker by Rodin

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

No simple solutions to our complex and messy world

The Thinker by Rodin

Kentucky senator Rand Paul has been busy pushing the Libertarian gospel lately. Today’s New York Times (which is one of the few sites we can read for free on our cruise ship) talks about his recent appearance at a libertarian meeting in Virginia where he was busy preaching to the faithful. If only government were minimal and capitalism were unrestrained, he preached, freedom would blossom and life would be beautiful.

Doubtless he got many rounds of applause for expressing these sentiments. The meeting contained the usual interest groups drawn to libertarianism: the John Birchers, the obsessively anti-war, the isolationists, ideological capitalists, extreme civil libertarians and not a few overt racists. Racism is a view that Senator Paul rejects, although his father, crank and former representative Ron Paul did raise money for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The money was used to start the institute, and which is overtly racist.

It’s not hard to find groups with simple solutions to our world’s complex problems. They tend to go by one word banners: socialists, libertarians, communists, fascists, free-marketers, environmentalists, unionists and many more that I am sure you can readily bring to mind. What’s true of all of these one size fits all solutions is that when they have been tried they haven’t worked. Libertarianism hasn’t been properly tried, and there is a good reason for that: it simply won’t work. Occasionally you see efforts that meet the spirit of a philosophy and you can observe the wreckage. The state of Florida that we return to on our cruise ship tomorrow has libertarian Rick Scott as its governor. He’s running for reelection but is certain to lose, after four year of libertarian-lite government and overwhelmingly conservative Republican control. During his governorship, Florida suffered disproportionately as businesses fled the state. With the thinnest of safety nets, the poor descended further into poverty and crime increased. Housing prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

Communism was given a good long run and failed miserably. It sounded good in theory, but quickly morphed into a dictatorship of the proletariat that looked a lot more like fascism which, in fact, it was. Those communist governments that remain are largely so in name only. China is still officially run by the Communist Party but Chairman Mao would simply not recognize it. If he were alive, he’d be fighting to overthrow it. Cuba remains the only truly sizable communist state in the world and is mired in poverty. Venezuela looked a lot like a communist state, but is really a socialist state. By the time of its next election, if not sooner, it will cast off socialism. The cost of socialism has been borne out in hyper inflation and high unemployment rates.

Successful states, such as they are, tend to be those that are politically hued. They are invariably democracies. Establishing democracies tend to be straightforward. Keeping a democracy, which is currently not happening in Egypt, tends to be much harder. Running a democracy takes a lot of work. It expects those in charge to be civilized and to follow an agreed on constitution. It expects its citizens to put a democracy above their own political persuasions. Democracies generally require a reasonably educated and informed populace and need neighboring states with hands off attitudes toward it. In a democracy, political consensus rarely lasts for long. When consensus is absent it becomes paralyzed. We have seen this played out in the United States the last few years. Democracies also need independents, who tend to be its most valuable asset. It is independents that break political logjams by voting for their interests rather than a partisan agenda.

Rand Paul is probably hoping to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He is busy trying to increase his political capital and to sell himself as viable to the party’s establishment. In doing so he must subtly show himself as not as hardcore libertarian as his hardcore activists would like him to be. He must come across as likable, not extreme, which is why he is distancing himself from the racist wing of the Libertarian Party. Even if he were fortunate enough to be elected President, he would certainly not be working with a Libertarian controlled House and Senate. Political compromise would still be required. He could make some changes via executive order to make the executive behave more libertarian, but he cannot overturn a law or abolish an agency or department. Even with political gerrymandering, it is very difficult to achieve one party rule. When it happens, it tends to fracture. There are many wings of the Libertarian Party, and they would fracture along predictable political fault lines. But even if consensus could be achieved, there is still a Supreme Court that as an institution resists change.

Our society is a tangle of laws, free market capitalism, entrepreneurship and various political and social forces, all interacting in a generally messy manner. It is human nature to look at such a messy system and to want to straighten it out in a way that matches your political inclinations. But it will remain a mess regardless of who is in charge and what philosophy of the day is dominant. Technology will continue to make advances. Humans will probably continue to populate the planet beyond our ability to sustain the population.

The only constant in life is that it changes, otherwise it would not be life. People through their governments must try to manage this chaos as best they can. Whatever system is tried is going to have its disadvantages. In the case of libertarianism, it is simply unworkable, as is true of any “-ism” philosophy. No system will perfectly fit all the myriad cases it is expected to address. Any system will favor some at the expense of others. The best political system will be one that understands these dynamics and will tend to intelligently accommodate the current changes that are underway.

This is a much harder road to follow. It requires debate, discussion, compromise, science, respect for science, respect for people of all beliefs, lots of education and open debate. It requires an understanding that compromise is imperfect but necessary. It requires respect, if not admiration, for those willing to compromise and a realization that perfection is rarely achievable and when achieved rarely lasts. It requires an acknowledgement that no system will be perfect, that external forces will affect whatever system is in place, and that adjustments will be required. Most importantly, successful governorship is simply being pragmatic and flexible. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s as perfect as we are likely to get at governing.