The Insulation Of Wealth As A Global Warming Pollutant | WYPR

The Insulation Of Wealth As A Global Warming Pollutant

Sep 10, 2019

Cover of Bryan Walsh's book "End Times."
Credit Hachette Books

One of the biggest obstacles to dealing with the problem of climate change is that it will not impact everyone equally.

Even if temperatures soar, coastal cities are flooded, and drought makes water supplies dwindle, the rich will still be able to turn up their air conditioning, jet off to Aspen, and pay a few bucks more for bottled water.

And it’s these millionaires and billionaires  -- like the current occupants of the White House -- who control the levers of government in the United States and other countries. They decide whether or not we should change our fuel consumption or lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the people who will suffer and die from global warming are the poor. They don’t have air conditioning when temperatures hit 104 degrees, often live in older urban like New Orleans or Baltimore beside the rising waters, and will be powerless if their food and water becomes too expensive.

This is one of the insights of author Bryan Walsh’s new book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World.

Here’s Walsh: “Wealth is a very powerful insulator, and poverty is something that exposes you – quite literally – to the elements.  And while it would be very nice to think that we are all in this together, that we’re all going to suffer equally, that’s simply not going to be true. “

This political problem is compounded when those with power – like the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans – are wedded to a political philosophy that doesn’t believe in using government to help the poor or vulnerable. According to this ideology, government should serve the so-called job creators and stimulate the growth of business, and then free market competition will take care of everything else.

”The knock-on effect of that is that it really limits our ability to come together as a world to deal with something,” Walsh said. “Because quite literally, those in power could just live in their air conditioned mansions, move to different places, buy more expensive food – whatever you want. And so the idea that they’d be impacted the same way and therefore be motivated to change is not very likely.”

Because this ideologically-driven political gridlock is preventing any real efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, Walsh believes the inevitable answer to climate change is technology instead of regulation. 

He argues that humans will eventually cool the planet not by stopping the burning of fossil fuels – but instead through what is called “geo-engineering.” For example, a new industry could grow in which companies with fleets of airplanes are paid to spray sulfur dioxide high in the atmosphere to create a chemical umbrella to block some of the sunlight.

But the flaw in this plan is that we could never stop.

“There’s actually a very evocative term for that – it’s called ‘termination shock.’” Walsh said. “That’s the term for basically what would happen if you started a solar geo-engineering program for some time and keep putting carbon in the atmosphere. You would be keeping temperatures down artificially, essentially. But then let’s say it stops, and it could stop for any reason. It could stop because there’s an accident, or because of a war. And what happens then is that you get the cumulative effect of all that carbon that’s been put into the atmosphere adding up all at once. You would get very fast warming, which would be very hard to adapt to. And that would be deadly.

So geo-engineering would not really be a solution at all. It would just be polluting more to try to temporarily cover up our old pollution.

The only real solution is changing the nature of our government itself, so that it is designed not to serve businesses and billionaires, but the average people who feel the heat.