Climate Change Bites Big Business

“Electoral politics is not the solution to the Earth-threatening problems we face.”
– Jeffrey St. Clair (10 August 2018, Counter Punch)

There is now no non-violent way to reverse climate change. Even with morally unrestrained action, it is probable that there is now no physical possibility of reversing climate change. The time for action was 1973-1979, the time of the two oil embargoes (the post Israeli War – against Egypt and Syria – Arab Oil Embargo of 1973; and the related-to-the-Iranian-Revolution vengeful price gouge oil embargo of 1979). This was the period of the Watergate-climax finale of the Nixon Administration, the Ford Administration, and the Carter “energy crisis” Administration. Politically, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 killed the possibility of US climate change action.

From Reagan through Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama to Trump, the mentioning of climate change – as one of government’s highest priorities, as one of corporate America’s foremost concerns (to be addressed, not suppressed), and as one of mainstream media’s primary and continuing focuses and leading stories – was minimized if not altogether absent. If anything, climate change denialism was heavily promoted by corporate and partisan (right wing) media, and by legions of corporate agents, flacks and factotums masquerading as elected representatives in federal and state governments. That has now changed.

Climate change is now all over the front pages of the newspapers and is the headline story of the mainstream mass media, primarily because of the massive fires in California whose smoke has even reached New York City. Why this new overt and blaring mainstream news attention to climate change, a subject that was officially hush-hush, trivial and fake news so recently in the past? Obviously because climate change has begun costing big money to major sectors of American capitalism.

In the case of the 2017-2018 California wildfires, one of the costs to capitalism is the financial threat of bankruptcy via liability suits against Northern California’s regulated monopoly utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which is being held responsible for causing the Sonoma and Napa Counties fires of 2017, because electric power lines swung into too-near tree branches during high winds setting off sparks that ignited fires that raced across the dry countryside, incinerating many communities and much industrial infrastructure (e.g., for telephone, internet and TV distribution, and also numerous small business facilities, croplands and vineyards).

A second set of costs to capitalism from California’s vast wildfires of 2017-2018 are the high losses to fire insurance companies, prompting their threats to leave the California insurance market, which in essence would mean a very sharp increase of fire insurance rates for California residents, homeowners and businesses. It seems unlikely to everybody that multi-countywide wildfires like those of 2017 and 2018 are a fluke unlikely to reoccur next year and thereafter.

Companies offering flood, tornado and hurricane insurance along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, and in Puerto Rico, may now also be smarting from the increased damage caused by more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, and the drenching and flooding rainstorms of the last few years. As with the vaster wildfires and longer wildfire season in the West, the more frequent and extensive flood and tornado disasters in the Great Plains and Gulf and Atlantic coasts have likely seeded thoughts of insurance flight and massive rate increases, and loan rate increases, in the minds of the moguls of the liability underwriting industry and the investment banking industry.

Higher insurance and loan costs hamper any business operation, and dampen real estate construction and sales activity, as well as adding usually unproductive costs to the living expenses of homeowners and renters seeking to buy a little security against unanticipated personal catastrophes.

It is good to remember that the reason the nuclear power industry (for electric generation) is dead is because the insurance industry worldwide rates nuclear power as an infinite liability and thus an uninsurable risk. Nuclear power can only exist where government assumes 100% of the liability in perpetuity. Insurance companies are starting to get the queasy feeling that perhaps wildfires in California (and probably the Great American Desert west of the Mississippi), as well as hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, are growing into potentially bankrupting infinite liability insurance risks.

A true and honest free market zealot would say: “So what, if companies like PG&E are at fault for wildfire apocalypses then let them get sued into bankruptcy. Another set of entrepreneurs will take their place as providers of electricity and natural gas for consumers, and profit as they deserve for providing safe and reliable service. Also, if some insurance companies are too scared to underwrite the risks of wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, then let them run away or price themselves out of the market, because newer entrepreneurs will become new insurance providers who will take advantage of capturing an underserved market by offering affordable insurance, and thus profit by gaining a large customer base that would then dilute their aggregate risk.” Yes, zealot, but “true and honest” does not usually pair with “profit” when we are dealing with Big Money operators. So, what is more likely to happen?

In the official postmortem of the 2017 Northern California wildfires, PG&E was pointed to as the primary (essentially only) culprit because of the arcing contact between live electric cables and dry tree limbs during the high winds preceding the fires. PG&E is required by regulations to maintain a set clearance between its power cables and all trees near them. That clearance was obviously insufficient, either because of an inadequacy of the state regulations, or an insufficiency of tree trimming maintenance by PG&E’s tree trimming contractors, or both. Fingers will point, courts will be busy.

However, the idea of thousands of burned-out wildfire victims suing PG&E into bankruptcy will not happen because the state of California would then have the colossal headache of finding a new enormous and technically competent business entity to seamlessly take over the operations of producing and distributing electric power and natural gas to many millions of Californians populating a large and geographically diverse terrain. So, California state government will revise old laws or craft new ones to provide too-important-to-fail utilities like PG&E (and Edison International, and San Diego Gas & Electric) with some legal protection from the financial threat of bankruptcy over the liability of causing wildfires. (See the citation at the end for the legalistic details.)

The FIRE combine (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate; and their meshing as Wall Street speculation), along with the War Industries Complex, has a stranglehold on today’s U.S. Government. Recall that FIRE owned the political career of Barack Obama, who dutifully protected them from justifiable prosecution and punishment for the greatest robbery of all time, in 2008; and that military-related expenses and subsidies consume over 70% of the federal budget (our taxes). While American Big Business includes many other rich and politically powerful sectors, like Big Pharma, I think that FIRE and the War Industries Complex are the largest forces in American capitalism today.

It seems to me that now that climate change is biting Big Business in a big way, the mainstream media is excited to report all the lurid details of catastrophes spawned by climate change, because it is echoing the fears of their prime and patronizing audience: the loss of big money by Big Business, and its fear of the loss of future certainty of uninterrupted profitability. Big Capital is now openly scared about climate change, and that is what we are now seeing as headline news.

We will also be seeing urgent promotions – presented as mass media news and commentary – for varieties of government subsidized protection for those sectors of Big Business that feel most financially threatened by the biting furies of climate change. The little that California state government is now doing for moderating the potentially infinite liabilities of its wildfire-haunted electric utilities is only the beginning of what we can expect in the way of publicly subsidized climate change insurance for Big Business.

I think that the pretense of climate change denialism by the Big Money has crumbled, and we are now entering a period of overt climate change acknowledgment coupled with fanatical efforts to gain public subsidies for private interests to both insure and indemnify them against climate change-related financial losses, and to also preserve the nature of their businesses even if they are major CO2 and organic vapor polluters, like the petrochemical and coal companies.

Notes:

California Governor Taking PG&E Closer to Fire Law Changes
July 25, 2018
https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2018/07/25/496015.htm

Facing $17 Billion in Fire Damages, a CEO Blames Climate Change
By: Mark Chediak
August 13, 2018
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-13/facing-17-billion-in-fire-damages-a-ceo-blames-climate-change

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This article appeared first as:

Climate Change Bites Big Business
14 August 2018
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/14/climate-change-bites-big-business/

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Living in Cadillac Desert

The American West is a land transformed by an immense network of water projects that cannot be indefinitely maintained. When will this land accumulate too many people (and salt) and lose too much water (along with the accompanying salmon and trout) to continue maintaining the present industrialized paradise? Marc Reisner explored this question in depth in his superb book Cadillac Desert. This book reminds me of Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian War because even though Cadillac Desert focuses on the history of water development projects in the American West it reveals the essential (and fatal?) political flaw of the American republic, which is based on the all-too-common human failing of short-sightedness in self-interest.

The following books and videos can help one appreciate the natural history of our Cadillac Desert, and both its allure and potential danger to so many.

Desert Solitaire, A Season In The Wilderness
Edward Abbey
1968

Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a wry, witty and poetic evocation of life in the high desert, immersed in unbounded nature and remote from civilization. It is as if Abbey had tried to conjure up for himself the sense of John Wesley Powell’s experiences on the Colorado River a century earlier. Beautiful, but I suspect today only an unrepeatable echo of the past.

Cadillac Desert, The American West And Its Disappearing Water
Marc Reisner
1986, revised 1993, Penguin Books
ISBN 978-0-14-017824-1 [paperback]

A masterpiece of Thucydidian timelessness, a tomogram of the American republic taken from the West. Read it [the videos are not enough].

Cadillac Desert
“jkoomjian” states:
Cadillac Desert, Water and the Transformation of Nature (1997), an American four-part documentary series about water, money, politics, and the transformation of nature. The film chronicles the growth of a large community in the western American desert. It brought abundance and the legacy of risk it has created in the United States and abroad. The first three episodes are based on Marc Reisner’s book, Cadillac Desert (1986), that delves into the history of water use and misuse in the American West. It explores the triumph and disaster, heroism and intrigue, and the rivalries and bedfellows that dominate this little-known chapter of American history. The final episode, is drawn from Sandra Postel’s book, Last Oasis, (1992) which examines the global impact of the technologies and policies that came out of America’s manipulation of water, demonstrating how they have created the need for conservation methods that will protect Earth’s water for the next century. This recording [of the series] comes from old VHS tapes, and the quality is messed up in places. But, it is nearly impossible to find copies of the original series anymore. Just a single copy of the first episode is for sale on Amazon, and the guy selling it wants $1000!! Or you can watch it here for free 🙂 [thanks jkoomjian]
Episode 1, Mulholland’s Dream (part 1)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkbebOhnCjA
All subsequent segments of video for the entire series can be linked from here. Also, all the video sequences are listed at jkoomjian’s video grid at:
http://www.youtube.com/user/jkoomjian/videos?view=0&flow=grid
Episode 1 is divided into 9 segments of 8 to 10 minutes (90 minutes).
Episode 2, An American Nile (in 6 segments, 1 hour)
Episode 3, The Mercy Of Nature (in 6 segments, 1 hour)
Episode 4, Last Oasis (in 6 segments, 1 hour).

Introduction To Water In California
(California Natural History Guides, 76)
David Carle
2004, University Of California Press
ISBN 0-520-24086-3 [paperback]

All the details about the water systems of California, from the mountains (Nature) to the taps and irrigation pipes (Man).

The Making Of A Continent
text and photographs by Ron Redfern
1983, Times Books
ISBN 0-8129-1617-4 [big beautiful paperback]

Ron Redfern used photography to tell the story of the geologic history of the North American continent. His book accompanies a six-part series of one-hour television programs broadcast in 1986 [I think expanded from a 3-part series with episodes 4, 5 and 6 from 1983]. I was fortunate to make VHS copies from TV broadcasts received with an aerial in 1987 and 1988, which I would aim just so for best reception, that requiring I climb onto the roof of my house repeatedly to aim the antenna before each broadcast. This is my favorite TV series, of which episode 4, “Corridors of Time” is my favorite hour of television. The photography, graphics and narration of the video series are all fascinating. Ron Redfern’s text in his book is very good also, informative and engaging. Episode 2, “The Rich High Desert,” describes the Ice Ages and shows some of the geologic and climate history related to Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, and Episode 4, “Corridors of Time” is about the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, whose shameless exploitation for irrigation Reisner recounts in detail. One source for the video series, on DVD, is shown next.

The Making Of A Continent
The complete 1983 BBC/WTTV Chicago co-production chronicling the birth and development of the North American continent. All six hour-long episodes are packed into 2 dual layer All Regions DVDs.
VOLUME 1
Epi. 1: Collision Course | Epi. 2: Rich High Desert | Epi. 3: The Great River
VOLUME 2
Epi. 4: Corridors of Time | Epi. 5: Land of the Sleeping Mountains | Epi. 6: Price of Gold
http://www.mediaoutlet.com/the-making-of-a-continent-dvd-set-complete-tv-series-2-discs-p-1043.html

Episode 6 of The Making Of A Continent is about California, and the following items all describe features of the state (also note Introduction To Water In California, above).

Faulting California
“Jere Lipps of the UC Museum of Paleontology & Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley explores California’s enormous diversity of geology, landforms, and biology which has been shaped by more than 200 million years of seismic activity. Series: “Uniqueness of California” [9/2005] [Science] [Show ID: 9522]” A one hour lecture (narration accompanying still and video visuals) from 2005, mainly about the San Andreas and Hayward and Calavaras fault systems, both their formation and present dangers.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzdBx9zL0ZY

A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate
Marc Reisner
2003, Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0142003831

Peggy Vincent writes (on December 14, 2003, link below): “Marc Reisner’s last book, dammit. What a great guy Marc Reisner was. He wrote A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate as he was dying of cancer, and it’s not just a benchmark of California’s environmental history but also a profound and emotional valedictory effort. Living as I do within ¼ mile of the grumbling and growling Hayward Fault, I found Reisner’s projections of the cataclysmic effects of the Big One to be more than unsettling. Those of us who are priviledged or doomed to live in this glorious state cannot fail to take heed of the picture he paints of the likely events surrounding our upcoming tectonic hiccups, belches, and sneezes. The book is divided into 3 sections. The first retells California’s environmental history from the era of Junipero Serra’s mission system right up to our own freeway system. The middle section deals with the fundamentals of plate tectonics. But it’s that 3rd section that looks forward to (shudder) a hypothetical eruption of the Hayward Fault in 2005 that is most gripping. Yikes. Sayonara to a great environmentalist and author.”
http://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Place-Californias-Unsettling-Fate/dp/0142003832

“A Dangerous Place” by Marc Reisner [Salon book review]
Katharine Mieszkowski
5 March 2003
“Plunged into the Bay? Smothered in the superstore? Californians may have forgotten about their looming apocalypse, but eco-journalist Marc Reisner’s final work is here to remind them.”
http://www.salon.com/2003/03/05/reisner/

Geologic History Of Middle California
(California Natural History Guides: 43)
Arthur D. Howard
1979, University Of California Press
ISBN 0-520-03874-6

Arthur D. Howard’s little book on the geologic history of California from King City to Point Arena from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada Mountains is now out of print, replaced by Doris Sloan’s 2006 book (following). However, though more recent work has made some of Howard’s dating and sequencing of events a bit less accurate, his effort to give one fluid pocket-book sized narrative of 230 million years of California’s geologic history, for a popular readership, a noble and very engaging work. His numerous pen-and-ink (and watercolor) illustrations and perspective cutaway diagrams, especially his incredibly detailed, scaled high-altitude view of the entire territory under consideration (Figure 1, Physiographic diagram of Middle California) are just endlessly fascinating. The sixteen photographs of geologic features are all interesting and beautiful. I wish this book had been revised for greater technical accuracy given present knowledge, but with as few other changes as possible. It was a gem.

Geology Of The San Francisco Bay Region
(California Natural History Guides, 79)
Doris Sloan
2006, University Of California Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24126-8

Doris Sloan’s book is a fat pocket-book, encyclopedic, profusely illustrated, describing the San Francisco Bay Area from Gilroy to Gualala from the Pacific Ocean up to the Central Valley, taken as seven regions (Marin County; San Francisco; The Bay and The Islands; The Penninsula: Coast, Redwoods and Bay; The South Bay; The North Bay; The East Bay). Detailed descriptions (and illustrations) are given for numerous locations within each of the seven regions. This book is a vast collection of detail logically organized and tightly packed. It is ideal as a guide book for visits to many points of geological and naturalist interest in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Roadside Geology Of Northern California
David D. Alt and Donald W. Hyndman
1975, Mountain Press Publishing Company (Missoula, Montana)

Alt and Hyndman’s book is a guide to the geology that you can see while traveling along California’s highways. The book divides the territory under consideration (north of San Francisco) into four regions: the Coast Ranges, the Sierra Nevada and Klamath mountains, the Great Valley, and the Cascades and Modoc Plateau (volcanic). The geology along highways running through these regions is then described in some detail with text, diagrams and photographs. This is a nice book to have as a passenger on a roadtrip in Northern California.

California is a modern paradise of uncertain water supply and shaky ground. Our best collective survival here must depend on a wider sense of appreciation of the land and each other.