Climate Change, Not the Price of Oil, Is the Real Threat To Prosperity

Just a few short hours ago, Donald Trump had one of his usual bizarre twitter meltdowns–this time over oil prices in the wake of the drone attacks on Saudi installations. He seems to be showing a renewed eagerness to go to war over the issue–presumably with Iran, which has (despite its denials) been widely suspected of the attack.

It’s easy to see why. Trump is terrified of the prospect of an economic downturn, not for the empathic or financial reasons that concern most of us, but because economic trouble would almost certainly doom  his already shaky re-election prospects. No president with Trump’s current approval rating has ever been re-elected, and while Trump likely has a fairly high floor of support for cultural reasons there is little likely a lot of room for him to fall with soft supporters. His own trade war is threatening to tip the economy into recession already, and the president can ill afford any further external shocks. Like, say, an increase in oil prices as a result of international sabotage. Hence, a presidential twitter tirade in which Trump claims to be “locked and loaded” and screams, oddly and to no one in particular, “PLENTY OF OIL!”

In the meantime, however, higher oil prices aren’t a threat to the American economy so much as they are to the President’s re-election. The much more urgent threat is playing out in the deaths, injuries and displacement of thousand of people in the Bahamas this month, and in the increasingly severe natural disasters, droughts, and biosphere collapses happening all around the world.

It is often said that climate change will hurt the poor and the developing world worst. This is true for what it’s worth, but this statement allows many Americans to suspect that they will be just fine and that climate change is someone else’s problem. It is not. American coastlines are threatened with inundation, its prairies with scorching drought, its forests with wildfire, its northern regions with ever more severe snowstorms, and its various ecosystems with cascading collapse.

These issues, of course, carry broad economic consequences. In just one example, large parts of the United States will become virtually uninsurable:

“I see no end to the challenges for insurance when it comes to climate change,” Jason Thistlethwaite, a professor of environment and economics at the University of Waterloo, added. “Flooding is another area where you’re going to see a lack of availability and affordability.”

Thistlethwaite said we’ll soon be seeing what he calls “climate redlining.” Redlining was a practice insurance companies engaged in for decades, starting in the 1930s, when companies would outline black neighborhoods on a city map and declare them uninsurable. He believes climate change will cause many neighborhoods to be excluded from insurance policies.

Dr. Carolyn Kousky, executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Daily Beast that federal disaster aid can often be “limited or delayed,” which is one reason having home insurance is so crucial.

“Many families do not have savings to repair a severely damaged home and for some, taking on debt can be burdensome or not feasible,” Kousky said. “There is really no substitute for insurance for having the needed funds quickly post-disaster to begin recovery. Unfortunately, often those who need the coverage the most are the least likely to be able to afford it.”

Multiplied across city after city and rural community after rural community, and this spells utter economic disaster on a scale larger than the previous housing crisis. With climate change, the cost of inaction today far exceeds the cost of inaction. Inaction is especially perverse considering that mitigation policies would create enormous positive economic activity across multiple sectors, including the sort of low-skill labor under threat from recent economic paradigms.

And, of course, the climate crisis is principally caused and exacerbated by continuing to burn fossil fuels. In that sense, rising oil prices–provided the economic shock is not too sudden and severe–are part of the necessary framework for solving the problem. The more economically advantageous renewable energy is compared to fossil fuels, the faster the market will help shift in that direction without government intervention.

America’s economy is also held hostage by fossil fuels in our military and foreign policy. Even the most jingoistic American would admit that oil interests play a very heavy role in determining when and where America goes to war, and by extension how our tax dollars are spent. In a very real sense, like a junkie in a downward spiral we are harming our ability to pay for needed climate mitigation treatment because we spend so much on military activity to maintain our oil addiction. The sooner we break the cycle, the better for everyone.

Unfortunately, this president refuses to even acknowledge the reality of climate change. Never having served in the military, he seems only too happy to throw volunteer bodies and lives into harm’s way to reduce oil prices in the service of a foreign dictatorship. And it’s not in the interest of the country but rather in his own self-interest.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.