How Capitalism “Solves” a Climate Crisis

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By Ian Angus

There have been many debates, on this blog and elsewhere, about whether global warming can be “solved” in a capitalist framework. Many people have proposed plans to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions without radical social change.

The advocates of such plans are sincere and well-meaning, but they miss the point. The issue is not whether capitalism can deal with global warming – after all, it is a wealthy and very flexible system. The issue is whether capitalist governments are willing to act – and, if they are, how they will deal with global warming – not in utopian essays, but in the real world.

The answer to the question “Can capitalism solve global warming?” is “Yes, but you really won’t like the solution!”

For a clear example of how capitalism actually deals with a climate-crisis, we have only to look at New Orleans, two years after Katrina. For the rich and white, the problems are being solved. They are doing just fine, thank you. The tourist areas of the Big Easy are back in business. The bureaucrats and construction companies in charge of reconstruction are getting wealthier by the minute.

And the poor and black are paying the price.

The following “Katrina Index,” appears in Blueprint for Gulf Renewal, a special report published this week by the Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure Magazine.

As you read it, remember – this is happening inside the United States, in capitalism’s homeland. If this is the way that capitalism solves climate crises at its doorstep, how likely is it that the system will deliver real solutions – or even much more than token amelioration – in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the impact of climate change will be far more devastating than the worst damage done by Katrina?

The Katrina Index:
The State of Recovery by the Numbers

Rebuilding and Recovery

Amount the Bush administration says has been spent on Gulf Coast recovery since 2005 hurricanes: $116 billion

Estimated percent of those funds that are for long-term recovery projects: 30

Amount of FEMA’s 2005 disaster relief budget that was spent on administrative costs: $7 billion

Percent of the 2005 relief budget that represented: 22

Of $16.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants earmarked for long-term Gulf Coast rebuilding, percent that had been spent as of August 2007: 30

Of $8.4 billion allocated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for levee repair in Louisiana, percent that had been spent as of July 2007: 20

Percent of rebuilding costs that Gulf Coast local governments were required to pay up front to receive matching federal funds, due to a Stafford Act provision that Congress has since waived for the region: 25, later reduced by President Bush to 10

Percent that New York had to pay after 9/11 and Florida after Hurricane Andrew, because the federal government waived the Stafford Act’s matching requirement: 0

Amount of additional money for rebuilding now available since the match requirement was waived in the Gulf Coast: up to $1 billion

As of June 2007, value of controversial “cost plus”Katrina contracts given out by three federal agencies, which allows companies to charge taxpayers for cost overruns and guaranteed profits: $2.4 billion

As of August 2006, value of Gulf Coast contracts that a Congressional study found were “plagued by waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement”: $8.75 billion

Affordable Housing

Scope of post-Katrina rent increases in Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s most storm-damaged parishes: 200 percent

Number of rental units available below fair market rents as of August 2007 in Mississippi’s Hancock County, Katrina’s Ground Zero: 0

Of the 200,000 homes in Louisiana that suffered major or severe damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, number that were rental units: 82,000

Number of Louisiana’s storm-damaged rental units on track for rebuilding under state-administered restoration programs: 33,000

Of the 5,100 New Orleans public housing units occupied before Katrina, number that are now occupied: about 1,500

Number of livable public housing units in the city that HUD has slated for demolition: 3,000

Number of planned replacement units that would be affordable to previous residents for which there’s rebuilding money: 1,000

Number of hurricane-affected households still living in FEMA trailers: 60,000

Number of families that have asked to be moved out of their FEMA trailers over concerns that they are toxic: 1,461

Estimated shortfall in Louisiana’s Road Home rebuilding program for homeowners if everyone eligible applied: $5 billion

Economy and Jobs

Number of jobs lost in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina: 118,000

Percent of stores, malls and restaurants that remain closed in New Orleans: 25

Value of Gulf Opportunity Zone projects approved to date in Louisiana to stimulate business recovery: $4.5 billion

Number of GO Zone projects located in New Orleans: 1

Number of luxury condos a developer plans to build with GO Zone tax breaks near the University of Alabama, four hours from the coast: 10

Months after Katrina struck that the Small Business Administration finished processing loan applications submitted for the storms: 21

Percent of Katrina contracts that went to Louisiana small businesses as of April 2007, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to pledge an increase in contract awards: 12.5

Percent that went to Louisiana small businesses four months later: 7.4

Number of Katrina contracts that federal agencies claimed had gone to Louisiana small businesses, but were later revealed to have gone to big companies or ineligible recipients: 259

Value of wages the U.S. Labor Department has recovered from Katrina contractors that failed to pay their employees: $5.4 million

Rank of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” Casino and Resort among largest post-storm private development projects proposed on the Mississippi coast: 1

Rank of “can’t pay for move” among reasons those displaced by Katrina say they aren’t coming back to Louisiana: 1

Coastal Protection and Storm Defenses

Estimated number of years left to restore Louisiana’s wetlands before coastal communities are swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico: 10

Percent of the state’s population that lives in coastal parishes: 50

Distance the Gulf has moved inland since New Orleans’ founding: 20 miles

Distance storm surge must travel over healthy wetlands to be diminished by a foot: 3.4 miles

Of the $21 billion water resources bill being considered by Congress and that President Bush threatened to veto over cost, amount devoted to Louisiana coastal wetlands restoration: $1.9 billion

Total estimated cost of a comprehensive program to restore the state’s coastal wetlands to a sustainable level: $14 billion

Square miles of protective wetlands destroyed in the New Orleans area by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet since the Army Corps of Engineers completed it in 1965: about 100

Number of those acres set for restoration in the Corps’ official plan for closing MR-GO: 0

Level of storm protection the Army Corps of Engineers is still trying to provide for New Orleans: 100 years

Level of storm protection that safeguards the Netherlands’ port city of Amsterdam: 10,000 years

Community Health

Number of patients seen on a typical day at D’Iberville Free Clinic, opened in Mississippi’s Harrison County after Katrina: 140

Number of free clinics created post-Katrina that are still operating in Harrison County, but that Mississippi’s medical licensing board is considering shutting down over concerns about competition with for-profit doctors: 4

Percent increase in New Orleans’ death rate compared to the two years before Katrina: 47

Of the seven general hospitals New Orleans had before Katrina, number that are operating at pre-storm levels: 1

Portion of New Orleans’ uninsured that would be helped by the Bush administration’s plan to cancel rebuilding of Charity Hospital and instead use federal dollars to buy private insurance for the poor: less than half

Number of months that elapsed between EPA’s December 2005 announcement that sediment from Katrina’s floodwaters wasn’t expected to cause health problems and the agency’s clarification that that this applied only to “short-term” visits: 8

Number of Katrina-flooded homes that EPA tested for chemical contamination, as its Science Advisory Board suggested: 0

While EPA assured New Orleans residents that they were being protected from the risk of demolition-related asbestos inhalation, the number of air monitors the agency installed in the predominantly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, where demolition work has been concentrated: 0

Months that passed between Sierra Club’s May 2006 report documenting dangerously high air levels of formaldehyde- a chemical linked to cancer and depression-in 83 percent of FEMA trailers tested and the agency’s decision to temporarily suspend deployment and sales of those trailers: 15

Factor by which suicide attempts among residents of Louisiana and Mississippi FEMA trailer parks has increased since Hurricane Katrina: 79

Read the full report: Blueprint for Gulf Renewal (PDF: 1.5 MB)