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Global and Local Carbon

Why we should be investing in clean water and public transportation instead of bridges for cars

At the annual meeting of the New York Economic Association last month in Rochester, Kent Klitgaard of Wells College gave a disturbing paper about how everything we know about economics is going to be upset by the crisis of global climate change. Klitgaard and other economists have been trying to assess how the various carbon mitigation schemes will work, reviewing such proposals as cap-and-trade and the fuel-efficiency and renewable-energy sourcing standards now in place in many states.

Their sober summary is this: Nothing anybody in America is doing so far measures up to the challenge.

Meanwhile, just north of us in the growing mega-metro that stretches from Toronto to Hamilton, a bipartisan political consensus on public transportation investment was reached two years ago—a consensus that will redirect billions of dollars away from roads and put the money instead into electric streetcars and commuter rail. The Canadians call their project The Big Move. They will go from about 250 miles of streetcar lines to 750 miles, reducing their carbon footprint even while preparing for population growth.

Tragically, 2010 seems to be the year that some see as the irreversible turning-point for man-made climate change. Scientists dispute not whether irreversible change is happening, only when the tipping point will come. Some think that 2010 is the year. The timing is tragic because 2010 is also a political year in which climate-change deniers are running strong in the mid-term and gubernatorial elections. Candidates aplenty may be elected on a platform that man-made global warming is a left-wing theory, that oil will remain in plentiful supply because it is made by geological rather than biological processes, and that terrorism, covert action, and other forms of political violence that stem from the global fight to control oil are all issues that can be controlled so long as we let our soldiers use methods that American law generally refers to as torture.

The pessimistic expect that the national consensus American politicians developed 20 years ago on the question of chlorofluorocarbons, which threatened the ozone layer, won’t be repeated in the case of greenhouse gases. The scientific evidence and the near-universal consensus about the reality of man-made climate change—which results mainly from burning oil and coal—is being met with phenomena like the Democratic Senate candidate from West Virginia, who is running on a platform of opposition to climate-change legislation, a position quite comfortable for every Republican. But as British think-tanker Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed’s new book shows, not only is there a consensus among scientists about catastrophic climate change, there’s a growing recognition that climate change, looming global food shortages, recent and future financial crises and the ongoing plague of political violence and terrorism are all linked by the fossil fuel business.

Ahmed’s A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization is a tough read. It is dense, brilliant, and frightening. Ahmed has done the job that has needed doing: He has connected the dots for the non-specialist. His first depressing achievement is to have collated the dense scientific literature on global warming into a chapter that sums it all up simply: The governments of the major industrialized countries have all come to understand that climate change is for real, and that the catastrophe of a four degree Celsius rise in global temperatures will happen by 2050, but because we are stuck in a global system dominated by petroleum, the governments that should be taking urgent, radical steps to move us to a post-carbon economy are not doing so. Nor, Ahmed says, can they be expected to do so.

Ahmed follows his summation of what the scientists are saying with a still-salient report on the recent global financial crisis, a review of the ongoing Third World food-production crisis, and a long, unsparing look at America’s global lust for oil, a lust that has sometimes put us on both sides of the “war on terror.” The result is a difficult volume that is hard to put down. It is a truly impressive book that is terrifying, but that, sadly, because Ahmed is a Marxist, is destined to be ignored. But you can’t ignore his sources, which include US military documents that concur on the inevitability of major climate change, but that strangely do not map out energy alternatives for America.

Where is President Obama on this? One would think that Obama and his Nobel Prize-winning secretary of energy would have galvanized the nation and created a crash national program on wind and solar power, instead of hurrying up the construction of nuclear power plants—of which there could never be an adequate supply, according to Ahmed’s sources. The creator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, pooh-poohed wind and pushed nuclear, but wind power is gaining: Google executives just last week announced that they will spend $5 billion of their pocket change to create a near-shore East Coast wind-powered grid to power more than million homes. Ahmed’s book reports on the astounding strides that the government of Germany has already made in fostering alternative, renewable, carbon-neutral energy. He also gives kudos to some local British successes. But it’s hard to be hopeful in the US today, as the fossil-fuel lobby may be about to retake the House of Representatives.

As we read the consistent warnings of economists and scientists, there is another disconnect—a local one. Predictions of the consequences of global warming are downright scary, especially the part that says that the time for action on reducing carbon-fuel emissions (including from biomass fuels like corn-based ethanol) is now. Why, if this crisis is galloping toward us, are local and regional policy-makers committing public resources to roads, bridges, and other long-lasting infrastructure that are all about oil?

Where is the commitment to public transportation?

And why are our public officials dithering about the one resource the Rust Belt may control—namely, our fresh water lakes—that may be our salvation, if it doesn’t poison us first?

Leaders and choices

Imagine that you are in public office. You have just read Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed’s book. You may have dispatched your capable staff to hunt down some of Ahmed’s primary sources, like that National Security Agency document that somebody leaked during the Bush administration, the one that lays out all the contingencies for war over resources like fresh water. If you’re an elected official who takes the job seriously, you’ve looked at the table that shows oil prices rushing sky-high by 2015 as supplies fall. (Go to and read economist Richard Janszen’s time-line for a similar view of the “peak oil” hypothesis and its projected impact on global energy, commodity and financial systems. Janszen thinks that the sky-high prices will happen before 2015.)

After reading these documents, somebody shares with you a map of where the fresh water will be in 2050—not globally, just in the US. The map is from a new study by Tetratech, commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (

These researchers found that one-third of American counties “will face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming.” California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, the Atlanta area, Washington, DC, and many other areas will be suffering.

Guess which counties won’t be suffering?

Answer: The old Great Lakes urban areas are where the water is and where the water will still be, thanks to the Great Lakes Compact signed two years ago. But the current state of our wisdom includes discordant information: The water will be here, but the people won’t. By 2050, California’s population will surge another 20 million over its current population, which is already north of 35 million today. Back home in the Rust Belt, where the population is not projected to increase (in fact, our population is expected to decrease radically by 2030), one could say that we will have the most precious of resources in oversupply, and users in under-supply.

So as an elected official, here are the facts: Your population is shrinking, but you have a precious resource that could, when today’s college students are old enough to be the parents of college students, be the great differentiator in economic survivability as climate change raises sea levels for our coastal cities, shrinks California mountain snowfall, dries out the Sunbelt, and generally causes distress everywhere but here. What would you, as a far-seeing elected official, want to invest today’s scarce public dollars in?

Here are the choices: a) invest like the Province of Ontario is investing, $2 billion a year for 25 years, in public transportation, so that 80 percent of the residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area will be no more than 1.2 miles from an electric train or trolley car; b) invest in the technology that will replace oil and create a more localized system of carbon-free or at least carbon-neutral power; c) clean up the water you do have so that the toxic waste, the sludge, the brownfields, etc., that characterize your waterfront today are gone by the time the demand for development arrives.

Those would seem to be smart choices. Instead, our local government leaders have no plan for extending trolley cars or replacing the filthy and dangerous coal-fired power plant on River Road or the one in Somerset. And instead of using public money to clean up the unique natural resource—water—they are in a rush to get Obama’s money to build more bridges for oil-fueled cars and trucks, including a redundant bridge over the Buffalo River that will connect downtown to a waterfront brownfield.

The Canadians are creating jobs by building their infrastructure. The Canadian manufacturer, Bombardier, is producing the new trolley cars that will start life in downtown Toronto and downtown Hamilton in the next year or so. Using the uncrowded Peace Bridge, where the only delays you’ll ever encounter come when Canadians are on the way to Bills games, you can drive north and see the future that local leaders evidently cannot imagine for us.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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