29 April 2013

Your money or your life?

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...


When I moved to a neighborhood known as the "murder capital" of New York City, I figured it was only a matter of time before someone held a knife to my throat and demanded my wallet. I would hand it over, of course. It's only money, right? But it didn't happen like I thought it would. I left a Christmas party late one night and heard someone running behind me as I approached a subway entrance. When I whirled to look, I was struck with a heavy object. I tumbled down the staircase and scrambled to my feet -- still in possession of 30 cents and two subway tokens. Later, someone told me that I had been mugged. "Really?" I asked. "But he didn't get anything from me." What upset me most was that the mugger hadn't bothered to ask.

Back then I believed that most people would gladly hand over their wallets to save their own skins, or those of their grandchildren, but the recession and the corporate stranglehold on our political system have changed all that. Today Americans are so fixated on the economy that they're disregarding scientists' increasingly urgent warnings about the life-threatening nature of global warming. It isn't just polar bears that are in trouble: Researchers have calculated that temperatures could rise enough this century to transform many habitable regions of our planet into no-go zones for humans. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012, a study commissioned by 20 at-risk nations, estimates that global warming already kills an average of 400,000 people annually -- most of them children -- mainly through its impacts on agriculture and climate-sensitive diseases. Climate also affects humans' ability to support themselves: A study published in February estimates that increased heat and humidity have already reduced humans' ability to work during the hottest months by 10 percent over the past few decades; this reduction in labor capacity is expected to double by 2050.

Continuing to expand the use of fossil fuels will only hasten our demise. Scientists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline -- which if approved by the White House will carry tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico -- call the project a "climate disaster."

In short, our lives are at stake. That should make protecting the environment a no brainer, even if it requires a financial sacrifice. Yet most Americans don't see it that way. Before 2008, Americans prioritized environmental protection over economic growth. In 2013, though, for the fifth consecutive year, a Gallup poll found Americans putting the economy ahead of the environment by a margin of 48 to 43 percent.

Gallup had asked whether protection of the environment should be given priority "even at the risk of curbing economic growth," or if economic growth should have priority "even if the environment suffers to some extent." Imagine if Gallup had asked the question a bit differently: "Should economic growth have priority over the air you breathe, the water you drink, the climate around your home, and the health of your family, even if those suffer to some extent?" Would nearly one in two Americans still say yes?

Apparently even the super-rich have more important things to worry about than heat waves and hurricanes. "You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it's probably not rising to your No. 1 concern," President Obama told a group of wealthy donors at a dinner on April 3, according to a report in The New York Times. The politics of the environment are "tough," the president said, even though they're no tougher than the politics of health insurance, gay marriage, and immigration reform -- areas where Obama is making significant progress.

Obama could make headway on climate change, too, if he didn't put the economy ahead of the environment at every step: if he was willing to impose an EPA rule limiting emissions from new power plants, for example, or reject Keystone XL. When the going gets tough, the tough don't approve pipelines.

When did the economy become more important than life itself? In the new way of reckoning, a carbon tax to prevent the atmosphere's temperature from rising to dangerous levels would be "too expensive." So too would be a thorough cleanup after a nuclear attack or accident, which is why the White House has endorsed a plan to relax decontamination standards. The health of businesses, not of people, is what newscasters monitor daily, if not hourly -- as if the Dow Jones Industrial Average took the pulse of the nation, rather than that of 30 corporations.

In its focus on business, though, the media is simply reflecting US leadership and laws. The logic of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission -- the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that entitles corporations to some of the rights of personhood -- has since escalated to a new level: Some of our leaders see anything that menaces the health of corporations as an "existential" threat. In 2011, for example, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called cyber warfare "the single biggest existential threat that's out there...because cyber actually, more than theoretically, can attack our infrastructure, our financial systems."

At a cyber security conference in January 2013, FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry, the agency's top cyber official, said the cyber risk is "existential, meaning it could eliminate whole companies." His concern for "consumers" seemed almost secondary, although he warned that hacking "could actually cause death."

A cyber attack could kill a lot of people -- by sabotaging networks that deliver food, fuel, and electricity, for example -- but the jury is still out on whether such an attack could ultimately make the planet unlivable. In the meantime, I find it odd (and scary) that some government officials and Internet security experts are expressing more concern for commerce than for the health and safety of humanity.

The existential threats that we face today, unlike my mugging, are not blows from out of the blue. Climate change already has us by the throat, but we can still choose to make the economic sacrifices that are required to keep our planet from overheating. Or we can hold tightly to our money and suffer the consequences.