Last week, CNN reported the story of Ed Bledsoe, whose wife Melody and two great-grandchildren Emily and James Roberts were killed by the Carr wildfire as he raced home to try and save them. Hearing Bledsoe talk about his loss is absolutely gutwrenching.
That leaves us wondering if Roger Pielke Jr. has been following the news out of California at all. Pielke has a very helpful and totally-not-tone deaf message in the WSJ’s opinion section this week: “Since 1990, economic losses from disasters have decreased by about 20% as a proportion of world-wide gross domestic product.”
As various climate disasters claim lives around the globe this summer, it’s puzzling why anyone should care about economic losses from extreme weather as a proportion of the sum total wealth of the world. Since Pielke’s schtick has been debunked repeatedly for, like, a decade, and this latest WSJ op-ed offers nothing new, it’s time to take a closer look at the neoliberal philosophy underpinning his work, specifically in the context of the NYT Magazine’s recent blockbuster climate piece.
While many initial reactions to the piece were similar to our own in pointing out the bizarre and unwarranted absolution of fossil fuels and the GOP, a trio of later takes focused on neoliberalism as the villain responsible for climate inaction.
First out of the gate was HuffPo’s Alexander Kaufman, who describes neoliberalism as “a form of laissez-faire capitalism that preaches prosperity through privatization and quasi-religious reverence for the wisdom of unfettered markets.”
As Kaufman writes, the philosophy “has dominated [US politics] for so long, it has become, for many, the conventional wisdom, not unlike believing vanilla is plain-flavored ice cream.” Constrained by this neoliberal myopia, we’re left without the tools to confront the climate problem at the scale necessary for true action, Kaufman argues.
Alyssa Battistoni’s critique in the socialist Jacobin Magazine balances Kaufman’s argument with some historical context. Battistoni’s take focuses on 1980s politics, detailing how neoliberal policy in that decade was “moving the costs of doing business back onto people and the planet.”
Finally, everyone’s favorite conservative trigger Naomi Klein on Friday dove further into the neoliberal political history tied to the NYT’s piece, building off the central thesis of her masterful 2014 book This Changes Everything. Klein writes in The Intercept that the ‘80s were a time when “the global neoliberal revolution went supernova” via the “Reagan-Thatcher recipe of privatization, deregulation, and austerity.”
Klein suggests the conflict between the need to restrain emissions and the desire to let the free market handle things is responsible for the current climate crisis. (She also makes quick work of Rich’s use of “a screamingly homogenous group of US power players” to portray the entirety of “human nature,” writing that women and people of color are “almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker.” We couldn’t agree more, Naomi!)
Neoliberalism is the context in which Pielke’s calculations can seem like a normal and reasonable take. After all, if climate change isn’t hampering the all-important metric economic growth, is it really getting worse?
Even if Pielke wasn’t hiding increases in extreme weather behind the insulating boundaries of better buildings and overall wealth accumulation, it would still be fundamentally wrong. By focusing on global GDP, Pielke implicitly admits that the loss of the life of someone in a developing nation, whose home isn’t worth much financially and whose existence may not produce “value” for the global economy, simply matters less than when an American’s multi-million dollar vacation home gets flooded.
This is the problem of neoliberalism: it assumes a landscape has no value beyond what the economy can do with the resources it provides, and that people are no more important than the economic value they create. We shouldn’t only fight climate change because that saves the ecosystems that provide useful resources for humanity, and we shouldn’t try and save our loved ones from climate change’s impacts just to sell them something later.
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