Of Corruption, Contempt and Climate Immorality
As Mother Jones and others are pointing out, there was a significant change in President Obama’s message when he gave his landmark climate speech last month. When he spoke about climate change at all during his first term, it was mostly about jobs. In his June 25 speech, it was mostly about morality – his moral imperative as president and father.
That is an important shift in focus in the public arena and a possible preview for how global climate disruption should be made a campaign issue in next year’s mid-term elections. It will be another opportunity to sweep obstructionists out of Congress and to replace them with leaders who recognize their moral obligation to confront climate change head on.
This Congress is in unapologetic contempt of the American families who have been burned and flooded out of their homes; the elderly and ill who are succumbing to heat waves, now America’s No. 1 weather-related killer; and the farmers in the bread belt whose crops, animals and livelihoods have turned to dust.
There are different types of immorality, and we are seeing several of them now. There is immorality by omission and immorality by commission. Some of it is illegal and some of it is not, although it should be.
The illegal variety is explored in the latest issue of the Natural Hazards Observer. It’s well established by science that the anthropogenic causes of climate change range from fossil fuel burning to the destruction of forests, soils and other carbon sinks. But there are less acknowledged anthropogenic causes of climate-related human misery. Among them are greed, injustice, corruption, the misallocation of public funds, the betrayal of public trust and the dereliction of duty by elected leaders.
This finding comes from independent researcher James Lewis and Ilan Kelman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. International experts on reducing disaster risks usually overlook “the extent to which greed, misuse of political and commercial power, mismanagement, incompetence and poor governance drive vulnerability,” Lewis and Kelman write. More specifically:
o Ethnic, religious, gender or disability-based discrimination force people into “ghettos of discrimination, deprivation and concentrated vulnerability where disease, fires, storms and flooding have greater impact.”
o Money that should be applied to disaster risk reduction is spent fraudulently or for self-serving purposes by those who control it. In the American political system, it’s called pork-barrel spending.
o Public funds are stolen and moved into private bank accounts rather than spent for disaster mitigation and relief. Lewis and Kelman cite estimates that during the past decade, $6 trillion has been siphoned from developing countries. “Illegal trans-boundary movements of money and goods from developing countries is valued at an order of magnitude more than foreign aid to those countries,” they write.
All of us on the planet are potential victims. The Worldwatch Institute counted 905 natural catastrophes around the world last year, 93% of them weather-related. The Norwegian Refugee Council reports that 32.4 million people in 82 countries were displaced by disasters in 2012, 98% of them because of floods, storms and wildfires. From 2008 to 2012, more than 140 million people were forced to evacuate their homes in 125 countries, the Council found.
We in the United States clearly are not exempt. Sixty-nine percent of overall losses and 92% of insured losses from weather disasters last year took place in the U.S., Worldwatch reports. According to the Center for American Progress, the federal government (that would be us) spent $136 billion on disaster relief from fiscal year 2011 to 2012 – an average of $400 for every U.S. household.
A study published five years ago in the Journal in of Law and Economics concluded that “where natural disasters strike, political corruption is soon to follow”. The authors reported that federal prosecutors had charged 700 individuals with crimes related to nearly $33 billion that FEMA allocated for disaster recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The failure of elected leaders to lead is immoral omission. Corruption in the political system, the repeated show votes in the House of Representatives to strip the government of the authorities and funds to address climate change, and the theft of disaster dollars are examples of immoral commission.
If there is justice in the universe, there is a special place in hell for those who profit from human misery. One section of that special place should be reserved for those who use the privileges of their wealth to fund the network of think tanks, media, nonprofit organizations and political campaigns that pollute the public mind with junk science and propaganda, all for the purpose of preserving the status quo that has made them rich and that they hope will make them richer.
The poster boys for this brand of immorality are Charles and David Koch. The Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) at the American University School of Communication has published the latest study of how Koch Industries and the billionaire brothers are using tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, campaign contributions and paid lobbyists to sow doubts about climate science and to block climate legislation.
“The House of Representatives voted to slash the EPA budget by 27 percent, one of the biggest cuts since President Richard Nixon and the Congress created the agency in 1970,” the IRW reported. “The Senate subsequently modified the severity of these cuts, and the budget was ultimately cut by nearly 16 percent. What is less known is that more than 100 House members — all Republicans, many tea party members — signed a little-known ‘pledge’ (similar to the Grover Norquist no tax increase pledge) backed by the Koch brothers promising to not spend any federal money to fight climate change without an equal amount of tax cuts. Most of the pledge signers received campaign contributions from Charles or David Koch or Koch Industries.”
Commenting on the IRW’s research, the New Yorker noted, “Since most solutions
to the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions require costs to the polluters and the public, the pledge essentially commits those who sign to it to vote against nearly any meaningful bill regarding global warning, and acts as yet another roadblock to action.”
“Climate-change policy directly affects Koch Industries’ bottom line,” the New Yorker continued. “Koch Industries, according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics cited in the study, is a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions, the kind of pollution that most scientists believe causes global warming. In 2011, according to the EPA’s greenhouse-gas-reporting database, the company, which has oil refineries in three states, emitted over twenty-four million tons of carbon dioxide, as much as is typically emitted by five million cars.”
The Kochs aren’t the only misery merchants who try to disguise their greed in the American flag, who demonize government, and who flagrantly buy influence. But they have gained special notoriety for their extraordinary reach, their Gekko philosophy of business and wealth, and their utter lack of concern about the human misery that they are at least partly responsible for causing, now and from now on.
We need an American spring, a victims’ revolt, a housecleaning in the House, and an electorate motivated by justified outrage at our do-nothing Congress and at the oil barons and their payola networks conspiring to enrich their future by stealing ours. We do not need class warfare because many in the upper class have class. Many use their couth and privilege well. We do however need the moral majority to reinstitute morality in our political system and public institutions.
There is a debate about whether Thomas Jefferson said “every generation needs a new revolution.” But at the founding of the country, he wrote:
God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty…(W)hat country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?
Climate action is about clean energy, new industries and green jobs, to be sure. It’s about national security and international stability. It’s about reducing our vulnerability – particularly the vulnerability of the most vulnerable – to the growing climate crisis. But it’s also about morality plain and simple, and the fact that so many powerful people lack it. We need to be mad as hell. Because if we are to restore the country to one of which we can be proud, we simply can’t afford to take this anymore.