Climate Change and Corporate Welfare

It’s been a pretty bad couple of weeks on the climate front. Two separate teams of climate scientists warn that the collapse of the western Antarctic ice sheet has already begun and is now too late to stop. The six glaciers already in retreat are enough, by themselves to add four feet to global sea levels. Although total collapse will probably take 200 years or more, the loss of the whole sheet could bring the total sea rise to between 14 and 17 feet — over and above previous predictions, which assumed the western sheet would remain intact. In California alone, this would put LAX, the San Francisco airport and the San Onofre nuclear plant underwater, according to governor Jerry Brown. North America is entering its third summer in a row of extreme drought — the worst in centuries in the southwest US.

Meanwhile, Harvard Ph.D. student Vanessa Williamson suggests Tea Partiers are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change because of two beliefs: “First, the coastal elite looks down on people in Middle America; second, the government wants to exert ever-more control, and will use any pretext to do it.” The goal of the “global warming hoax,” Tea Partiers believe, is “to undo the American way of life — big cars, big homes, suburban sprawl — and make the heartland look more like the coasts” (Christopher Flavelle, “Climate Change is Stuck in the Culture War,” BloombergView, May 9).

What’s most striking is the belief that the Middle American lifestyle of SUVs, split-level ranches in cul-de-sacs, strip malls and Big Box stores is some sort of spontaneously emergent behavior in the free market, and that this could only be “undone” through increased government control. The truth is just the opposite.

Car Culture and the sprawl lifestyle was created by massive government intervention and only survives from massive ongoing government intervention. It lives, moves and has its being in big government. Local governments subsidize freeways from general revenues and get still more subsidies in the form of federal grants. Government — in cahoots with the local real estate industry — uses eminent domain to bulldoze low-income neighborhoods for new freeways. Building codes mandate giant golf-course front lawns. Zoning laws criminalize mixed-use development, corner groceries and affordable walk-up apartments downtown. Downtown gentrification projects replace large amounts of nearby housing with mandated parking, make much more of housing unaffordable to original residents, and destroy small businesses that previously served the ordinary daily needs of the surrounding neighborhood instead of out-of-town yuppies.

Federal government created and continues to heavily subsidize the Interstate Highway System, without which the Walmart “warehouses on wheels” logistics system that destroyed Main Street couldn’t exist (and, oddly enough, the Red State politicians who are most vocal about “big gummint leaving us alone” are also likely to see their main job as bringing home federal highway pork for the Chamber of Commerce). Government uses eminent domain to steal farms and Native American territories protected by treaty for pipelines. It sets liability caps for oil spills. Its courts, from the mid-19th century on, have weakened the earlier strict tort liability standards for corporate malfeasance (like pollution from fracking and mountaintop removal).

And don’t forget the murderous wars the US fights and the costly military establishment it maintains to keep fuel cheap. It’s amazing how many recent wars to “defend our freedom” involved creating military bases and installing puppet regimes around the Caspian Sea or Persian Gulf oil basins. By far the biggest portion of America’s “defense” [sic, sic, SICK] budget goes to maintaining a Navy of 11 Carrier Strike Groups, whose main purpose is to subsidize shipping via oil tanker and container ships by keeping the sea lanes open at general taxpayer expense (Adam Smith observed over 200 years ago that merchant shipping itself should justly bear the cost of its own protection).

Add to all this the fact that Red States are mostly net tax consumers. Their regional economies are dominated by military bases, military industries or extractive industries (mining, logging, fossil fuels, ranching) that are heavily subsidized by the federal government. So what Red Staters call “the American way of life” is nothing but corporate welfare, and the SUV and monster truck are its poster children.

The implications are obvious. Climate change is not something for the government to combat by prohibiting or taxing various activities that contribute to CO2 emissions. Just the contrary: The best way to combat anthropogenic global warming is for government to stop doing stuff like actively subsidizing or mandating sprawl, subsidizing long-distance shipping and transportation, and subsidizing energy consumption. Government is the problem, not the solution.

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist