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Hurricane Dorian Shows the Need to Fund Climate Adaptation

September 11, 2019

President Trump says Bahamian refugees seeking refuge in the United States need proper documentation because some of them are "very bad people." Scholar Christian Parenti says that's just a taste of the horror the climate crisis will create

President Trump says Bahamian refugees seeking refuge in the United States need proper documentation because some of them are "very bad people." Scholar Christian Parenti says that's just a taste of the horror the climate crisis will create


Hurricane Dorian Shows the Need to Fund Climate Adaptation

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

Trump administration officials are not in agreement about whether refugees fleeing the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, a category five storm that killed at least 50 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods, should be allowed to seek refuge in the US. Hundreds of Hurricane Dorian survivors boarded a ferry from Freeport to Florida on Sunday, but those without US visas were ordered off the boat. A video from south Florida news station WSVN captured an announcement over the boat’s loudspeaker:

BOAT CREW MEMBER: Please, all passengers that don’t have US visas, please proceed to disembark.

DHARNA NOOR: The evacuees left their destroyed homes in Freeport, and waited in line for hours to get on the ferry to Fort Lauderdale. Before boarding, they were told that they only needed a passport and proof of no criminal record. Here’s Bernard Oliver, an evacuee who was ordered off the boat.

BERNARD OLIVER: It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughters cry. They’re saying that they just got a call from CBP. And CBP told them that everyone that doesn’t have a US visa, and who’s traveling on police record, has to come off.

DHARNA NOOR: The Acting Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection responded to the video. He said that storm refugees are welcome, whether or not they have travel documentation. But then on Monday, he said that the US is considering extending temporary protected status to Bahamians. He said that he discussed that with President Trump. President Trump on Monday had a pretty different message, though.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Everybody needs totally proper documentation. The Bahamas has some tremendous problems, including some very bad people, and some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers.

DHARNA NOOR: Now joining me to talk about all of this is Christian Parenti. He’s an esteemed journalist and author, and he teaches economics at John Jay College at the City University of New York. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Thanks so much for being here today.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: I want to start just by asking you for your reaction to that WCSV video. What do you make of all of these varied responses to those fleeing the Bahamas? Trump says that refugees should be expected to have paperwork because some of them may be “very bad gang members” and “drug dealers.” But the US Custom and Border Protection officials seem to sort of disagree with that take.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. I mean, it’s very disturbing because obviously these are people who need assistance, and it would be very simple and easy to help them. And so, it’s a normalization of cruelty. That’s a big part of what Trump is doing, right? He’s sort of normalizing a kind of cruelty, everyday cruelty from government. So that’s, I think, very disturbing, when there isn’t even hypocrisy. There isn’t even the tribute that vice pays to virtue, right? “Oh, we want to help,” but then blocking them bureaucratically. He just comes right out and says it. And it’s totally racist, casting people as gang members and stuff like that. And there’s going to be a lot more of this in the future.

I think that this question of climate refugees and how we as a society deal with them, is one of the central ones going forward over the following decades. Because it’s either going to be a politics of accepting the fact that there is going to be massive migration from the Global South to the Global North because of climate change. I mean, even best case scenarios as we start dealing with climate change, still we’re locked in for lots and lots of disruptions, and millions of people are going to have to leave the tropics as they dry and flood.

And so, this will either be met with a kind of climate fascism and climate apartheid, or it will be potentially transformative and help build a new ethos of sharing, redistribution, and planning. There has to be a lot of planning. We have to accept the reality of the fact that we need to be not only mitigating, but adapting in pulling back toxic infrastructures from the coastlines, preparing to defend cities, also preparing to let parts of the coastline go, and also preparing to absorb large numbers of people who have to flee.

It’s important to realize that in many ways, the economies of the Global North actually need immigration. One of the strengths of the US economy from a kind of right-wing point of view—like The Economist has been going on about this for years— is that compared to Europe, we’ve had more open immigration policies. And our economy has been, though unequal and distorted, has been producing more jobs and growing faster than Europe’s economies. Partly that’s because we have these young workers, immigrants coming in, who produce value. This idea that the national economy is a fixed amount of money like a piggy bank and there’s not enough to go around is ridiculous. I mean, what do immigrants do when they come to this country? They produce wealth, right? They don’t just consume it; they produce it.

So the great irony is— less so for the US, but very much so for Europe— native-born populations in Europe are not reproducing at a rate that will reproduce the workforce at a sufficient level to produce enough wealth to pay for the social safety system there, and they need workers. In many ways, what this kind of anti-immigrant politics is really about isn’t about excluding people. It’s about creating harsh conditions for immigrant workers once they arrive, so that they cannot unionize, they cannot bid up their wages. They do not feel that they have the right to participate in the political process to move things in a more progressive, redistributive, socialist direction essentially.

DHARNA NOOR: And—

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: So and that’s kind of what happened in Europe where they’re like, on the one hand, fortifying [inaudible]. But on the other hand, Angela Merkel’s like, “Come on in.” Because they want those workers there, but they want them down. They want them frightened and without rights.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. And here within the US, I think we’re seeing something similar. I mean, last week, Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott wrote this open letter asking President Trump to, “Waive or otherwise suspend certain visa requirements for Bahamian refugees.” What do you make of that? I mean, I think some people are reporting on this like Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are now sort of the good guys, but what happens to those climate refugees when they actually come into the country? Is it important to look at, of course, how they’re treated once they’re actually here, and what kind of conditions they face once they’re actually accepted?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. Well, having visas would help their treatment once here.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I mean, I think what that’s, real specifically, what that’s about is that Marco Rubio is still trying to win over parts of the immigrant population. He realizes that there are potential Republican voters among immigrant groups, Latinos and others, and he’s holding out hope that he can be that kind of Republican. I mean, Jeb Bush tried this. And the old, pre-Trump kind of center of the Republican Party has been very clear about that. That they do not want to run on racism because the demographics of the country are such that that’s not very rational electorally, and so he’s making a play for that.

At the  kind of larger political-economic level, we’re finally seeing wages go up in this country because of the long, slow recovery since the 2008 crisis. And in certain low-wage markets, there are actually labor shortages. Now, this is a tricky thing. People are like, “Whoa, whoa. What are you arguing here?” These are markets in which Americans just won’t take these jobs. You know, like picking cranberries. You know, these kind of immigrant, low-wage job sectors. There’s actually labor shortages, and there is an element in the employer class that wants more workers. They don’t want to increase wages, and they don’t want to lose their crops, and so they want more workers. Of course, what they want is they want more workers, but terrorized workers who don’t unionize.

Trump is not paying attention to any of this. He’s off on his own thing. He is a nationalist, white supremacist, and I don’t think he can really track larger economic issues. So, he’s just pandering to the base. There’s a kind of feedback loop between him and his base. And it is to some extent useful for the capitalist class to keep immigrants maligned and terrorized and delegitimatized, that project. But on another level, it’s also literally irrational when you’re getting to the point where there’s actual labor shortages in certain sectors. So I think that’s kind of what Marco Rubio was trying to do. He was looking for the beyond Trump moment. He’s a young man. He thinks he can be president.

DHARNA NOOR: Important to note, too, that those are sectors of labor that will be impacted by the climate crisis in huge ways. I mean, I think often when people talk about policy proposals like the Green New Deal, there is this rhetoric about what does labor say? What do unions say about this? But don’t ever really address the millions of people who are working either in the Global South or in the US in those unorganized labor sectors, people who are working in fields, people who are often undocumented who are getting paid less than minimum wage, who will be impacted by that increased heat and variable temperature.

Talk a little bit about how that plays out and how that plays into your thesis in your book, Tropic of Chaos. I mean, you write there about the “catastrophic conversions of poverty, violence, and climate change,” and you talk about how the climate crisis is exacerbating inequalities and conflict. So how does that play out both in that play between the Bahamas and the United States, and then within the United States? How does that apply to what happens as the climate crisis exacerbates all of these kinds of crises that we’re seeing here nationally as well?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Mm-hmm. Well, I think in terms of immigrant workers, one of the most important things that can happen in terms of their standard of living, and also in terms of climate adaptation, is for them to gain rights. One of Bernie Sanders’s proposals has been to extend the federal protections for workers from the New Deal that excluded agricultural workers and domestic workers. This was a sop to the conservative interests in the South that were basically like they were okay with federal laws that will raise wages for the industrial workers in the North, “But don’t come down here and try and do that because our selling point”—And they would say this. They say this to this day, that one of the competitive advantages of the South is its low wages. And so, they got their agricultural and domestic workers excluded.

Now, part of that was racism. Sometimes, too often, that history from the New Deal is reduced to racism, which is incorrect. There were actual more poor white agricultural workers not covered by the Wagner Act than there were African American. So, it’s a class-race thing. It’s both, but class is very important. So I mean, agricultural workers and immigrant, low-wage, low-skilled workers need these legal protections, so that they can unionize and bid up their wages.

Now, that’s important for climate adaptation because actually, remittances to the Global South from the Global North are one of the most important economic transfers on the planet. People in the Bahamas, people in any Global South country that’s hit by a hurricane like this, the primary source of money for their rebuilding efforts is not going to come from aid agencies, and not going to come from government aid programs because a lot of that’s just consumed by well-educated, well-meaning bureaucrats, lanyard-wearing bureaucrats. The actual money for Uncle So-and-So and Grandma to rebuild the house? That usually comes from people working up north, sending money back.

So, remittances are actually really important. Not just in like a humanitarian way, like, “Oh, it’s nice to provide some money for the folks back home in the Global South,” but also because they then invest this building houses, small businesses, building the economy, and that helps people adapt. I mean, the rebuilding has to be better and stronger and higher and prepared for these storms. Where does the funding come from? A lot of it will come from the wages of workers in the Global North. A rational adaptation policy would acknowledge that and would support immigrant workers all across the Global North in their efforts to make a better life for themselves in the North, and to help their families and the economies of their home countries.

DHARNA NOOR: I do want to get into, a little bit later, more about how we can fund a project like this. But I first want to ask you about what role the United States at large should play in funding all this adaptation, mitigation, maybe even climate reparations. I mean, the United States has higher greenhouse gas emissions per capita than most other countries. How much of a role should the US be playing to help refugees like those from the Bahamas? And what responsibility should both the US government and the fossil fuel industry play here to help pay for these kinds of losses?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, I mean, it should be paramount. What the US should be doing is slashing its military budget, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and redistributing technology and capital to the Global South to help those economies transition off of fossil fuels onto renewable energy, and also to physically and socially adapt— help people move, help people rebuild in sustainable ways, help adapt agriculture. I mean, that’s what should be happening. A program of kind of, you know, a mixed economy or eco-socialism of some sort. I think that’s kind of like a realistic response.

That’s what should be happening. Politically, that seems pretty near impossible at this moment. Well, we’ll see. I don’t know. Bernie Sanders is getting a lot of traction, and his Green New Deal was very good. But that’s what the US should be doing, is completely transforming its current priorities. But that’s going to take lots of political pressure, and it’s going to require a sophisticated pushback against this anti-immigrant politics. And I think a pushback that’s not just based on a kind of humanitarian thing, but also makes a more rational argument in these macro-political-economic terms. That’s what the US should be doing.

Also, one of the most important things the US should be doing in terms of adaptation and mitigation is leading the way because unfortunately, the way the world works is that large economies develop technology, usually with state funding. Then it’s licensed to the private sector, it’s brought to scale, and then the rest of the world, for better or for worse, is forced to adapt it. And so, the more that large, core capitalist economies, particularly the US, can create renewable energy technology that’s cheap, the more it will be adapted in the Global South. Because all over the world, there are people right now who are deciding, “Should we buy a generator, or should we buy these solar panels?” And the basic question is, “Well, which one makes more economic sense?”

And if large economies are investing heavily in clean energy, then the prices come down and renewable energy technology is competitive with dirty fossil fuels. And then adoption of those technologies accelerates for purely economic reasons. So that’s another thing that the US can do for its own well-being and also for the good of the world, is to drive this technological transformation with government policy.

DHARNA NOOR: And again—

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: [crosstalk] I’ll tell you, one of those government policies has to be— this is the one thing, one of the few things I saw in Bernie’s plan that was sort of missing— was the role of government purchasing. Government procurement of technology is really important. Government historically plays a major role not just in supporting research and development of new technologies, but as the first generation consumer. This is true for a lot of medical stuff, for aircraft, for computers. You know, steamboats and stagecoaches as well. The government provided a consumer base to help these technologies achieve economies of scale, lower the prices, and then the private sector starts being the main consumer.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Talk a little bit more about the role of the private sector. You recently wrote a piece for Jacobin on getting corporations to pay for the Green New Deal, a policy umbrella that obviously includes climate adaptation and mitigation. You’ve also talked a little bit about the way that we could use more simple mechanisms, like the Clean Air Act, to enforce regulations and really push for the funding of this huge plan of this kind of scale. Talk a little bit about where the private sector comes in.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Mm-hmm. The article in Jacobin was just noting the fact that non-financial corporations in the United States are sitting on $4.5 trillion in cash.

DHARNA NOOR: It’s crazy.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Now, this is not money—Yeah, this is enormous. The entire size of the US economy is about $21 trillion annually. This is not money that’s given out to stockholders as profits, or given to managers as bonuses. This is money retained by the firms for investment, and they’re just sitting on it because they don’t know what the next big thing is. They don’t know what to do.

And obviously, if the government came along with policies that were basically the equivalent of like, “The fossil fuel industry is on a death watch. We’re going to euthanize it in the following schedule. And we are going to give tax breaks for building out of solar farms and wind projects and rebuilding the grid, et cetera, et cetera, and we’re taxing this corporate hoard.” Right? “If you just sit on money, we’re going to take it from you, or you can invest it in building this out.” There’d be – vast amounts of money would flow into building out this clean energy technology.

So part of what that gets at is this question of, who will pay for the Green New Deal? And this has really bothered me a lot because I think too many people on the left are buying into this. Don’t take the bait. Who will pay for the Green New Deal? The answer is, who pays for the energy economy as it is now, right?

DHARNA NOOR: Right.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It’s not like people aren’t going to consume energy. The question is, is your annual budget of I-don’t-know-whatever, $5,000 a year on energy, going to be for fossil fuel energy, or is it going to be going into this clean energy sector? So, it’s basically like the national energy fund, broadly defined, is what will pay for the Green New Deal. Also, there are multiplier effects from this. Wiping out existing infrastructure and investments and replacing it, creates economic growth. Now, there’s a problem with like – I mean, economic growth is problematic. It also means that there’s other environmental impacts.

DHARNA NOOR: Right.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: But just narrowly focusing on how to get off of fossil fuels. To some extent, this process will pay for itself, and Bernie did make that point in his speech about the Green New Deal right after. I mean, World War II cost lots of money, but World War II also essentially paid for itself because the economy grew. There were more wages, there was more profits, all of that was taxed, and the government did deficit spending, created this economic growth, taxed that economic growth, paid off the old deficit spending, pumped more money into the economy, and at the end of the war, the economy was big and robust and booming.

I mean, that’s the kind of transformation, that’s the level of change we’re talking about with the Green New Deal. It has to be that kind of radical, massive transformation. And that kind of a transformation will generate lots of income that when taxed, will pay for the initial startup costs—

DHARNA NOOR: Not to mention that—

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: And will also mobilize this private sector hoard.

DHARNA NOOR: Exactly. And of course, again, as you mentioned before, redirected funds could come from the military, which is, again, the largest industrial polluter in the world, the US military. That’s also obviously good for people in the Global North for other reasons, and it doesn’t even begin to address the cost of not doing anything. I mean, talk about how much it would actually cost if we didn’t act to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. The amount of money that we’d have to spend even just to rebuild all of this infrastructure and relocate people and everything, it’s just massive.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. I mean, it would cost everything. The science is pretty clear that if we don’t do anything, climate change becomes self-compounding and runaway, and potentially all life on Earth in a couple hundred years to a thousand years could be gone. I mean, right now, human civilization is still the main emitter of greenhouse gases. If climate change gets going much more rapidly, then the collapse of natural systems becomes increasingly important in emissions.

The classic example of this is the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic. There’s a lot of methane stored under the permafrost. If the permafrost melts, then all this methane comes out. It’s a very powerful, but more short-lived gas than C02. So, I mean, right now, the good and bad news is that the problem is within our hands as human beings, and it could get completely out of our hands. So in other words, it would cost everything. It literally—It sounds hyperbolic, but it literally does mean potentially the total collapse of civilization. So, anything is better than that, right? And it’s like, a lot of your listeners and I share this sentiment, I’m not a fan of capitalism, but I have spent many years—

DHARNA NOOR: You don’t say.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Describing how we could make real changes in real time within this system because I don’t think it’s realistic to say, “Well, we’re going have – we’re going to fight, and then we’re going to achieve socialism, and then it’s going to be sustainable.” Because first of all, that will take a very long time, and climate change is happening now. We have to deal with it now. And second of all, there’s no guarantee that socialism is sustainable. Even Marx himself said this. He was like, “There has to be specific planning around” what he called “the rift in the metabolism of nature.”

So that caveat aside, hear what I’m saying not as a fan of capitalism, but as a student of its history and its reality. One of the perennial problems that capitalism faces is the problem of overproduction. In terms of the cost of the New Deal, and costs of this and that, it’s like the problem isn’t lack of money or wealth. The problem is too much money, too much wealth. That four and a half trillion dollar hoard that corporate America is sitting on, that is going to either bid up assets, financial assets, and fuel the next bubble, or it’s going to be used to build out solar farms. And if it does the bidding up of financial assets, then we’re going to face another crash and a crisis.

I mean, this is the weird irony in it. Depressions and collapses are caused not by a dearth of money and wealth, but by an over-accumulation of capital, and there being a lack of profitable investment opportunities for the capitalist class. And part of what the capitalist state does when it works effectively, is to clear out old investments and open new areas of investment to absorb all of that accumulated capital. So the problem of capitalism is over-accumulation. That’s one of the key problems. That’s one of the key dangers.

And one of the most important ways to prevent calamities like economic collapse and warfare and genocide is to make sure that doesn’t happen by taxing and confiscating and forcing the reinvestment of that hoarded capital. And part of what that requires is the elimination of the existing capital stock. The classic way that happens, in an unplanned and terrible fashion, is through warfare. You get over-accumulation in the 1920s? Crash. It’s the Great Depression. That leads to fascism, and then fascism produces this World War, which gets at the underlying cause (i.e. it burns down all the cities in Europe and Japan). And then lo and behold, you have this golden era afterwards of like, oh, capitalism booms for a generation and a half because it’s rebuilding this crisis.

So we have to acknowledge that and say, okay, we must choose a solution to this episode of over-accumulation. And the obvious choice is to euthanize and eliminate the fossil fuel industry, which would create this huge vacuum into which all sorts of investment would flow, and there would be all sorts of employment and a new round of a long wave of accumulation. Now, that’s not the same as sustainability, but that is how we could deal with getting off of fossil fuels in the short term. And that’s really just a triage thing. I’ve been saying this for years. It’s like because climate change can be so catastrophic in its consequences, we can kind of confuse climate change and greenhouse gas emissions with all of the environmental problems. And it’s really just one subsection of it, and it has to be dealt with to buy time. I mean, the great irony is look at the insect apocalypse, right? It’s like two-thirds of insects have collapsed?

DHARNA NOOR: Sure.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Sperm counts are collapsing across the developed world. This is all— [crosstalk]

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. A million species face extinction.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah. I mean, in the long-run it could be one of these other problems that gets us and not climate change. So it’s simultaneously a fixation on climate change because it’s a short-term problem potentially, but not to conclude that then it’s the only problem. We also have to deal with all these other problems, but we have to buy time and not let civilization collapse in the next 30 or 40 years.

DHARNA NOOR: And as we’ve seen in the Bahamas, that also has the potential, even if just in the short-term, to save so many lives. We have to leave it there. Christian Parenti is a journalist, author, teaches economics at John Jay College at the City University of New York. His most recent book, of course, is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Thank you so much for being here. And we hope to talk to you again soon.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Thank you. Good luck.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.