In Response to Mr. Brooks, Part 2

Gradual government will fail in a changing climate

Cross-posted on December 24, 2013 by The Bard CEP Eco Reader

Last week I posted a response to a column written by David Brooks, the sensible conservative voice of The New York Times. I agree with Brooks that some of us waste far too much of our lives worrying about politics.

His picnic example skillfully illustrates the important yet barely perceptible role government plays in shaping the environment in which we go about our everyday activities:

“Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.”

Yet I disagree with the columnist’s assertion that “the best government is boring, gradual and orderly.” The piece even mentions, “Governing is the noble but hard job of trying to get anything done under a permanent condition of Murphy’s Law.” Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Brooks is mistaken. If Murphy’s Law applies I do not know when such a bogus axiom became a “Law”  then government must be much more than slow and orderly.

Had decisive action ruled the day after Hurricane Katrina, how many more people could have been rescued? Instead the local government delayed implementing their evacuation plan until the last possible moment, while the Federal government simply threw money and troops at the disaster, enraging local leaders by neglecting reality on the ground.

Liberty B24 bombers are assembled at the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant in 1943, as part of the Allies' World War II effort. *Source*: The Detroit News

Liberty B24 bombers are assembled at the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant in 1943, as part of the Allies’ World War II effort. *Source*: The Detroit News

To relate this suggestion to my favorite topic, government must quit the slow, orderly background model and treat climate change like the crisis that it is. Before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt challenged American industry to become the “Arsenal of Democracy”; Detroit auto manufacturers stopped making cars and began to produce tanks, aircraft, and other military vehicles.

What if the Obama Administration declared war1 on global warming and told automakers that for the defense of the country  and the world  they must focus all their attention on zero-emission vehicles? What if our government helped make electric cars truly climate neutral by taking the radical step to require that electric utilities create a carbon-free grid by 2030?

The Department of Defense has, time and again, declared that climate change impacts pose significant threats to national and international security. The potential perils of a warming planet must be addressed proactively with war-like effort in order to prevent real military conflicts over land and resources.

The world looks to the U.S. for leadership, for worse or for worse. If our government is slow and focused only on keeping order, it will fail to keep order. Poor countries in regions most exposed to the effects of climate change will fight over necessities like clean water, food, and even land as sea level rise encroaches upon low-lying cities. More frequent and more energetic storms will come too quickly for traditional disaster response mechanisms to adequately protect and rebuild the infrastructure needed to maintain our standard of living in the developed world.

Proactive climate adaptation requires decisive government action and flexibility for adaptive management. In contrast, the “boring, gradual, and orderly” government described by Mr. Brooks is associated with reactive policymaking: rescue rather than evacuation, and then drafting new legislation to prevent the exact failure that has happened from recurring.2

Mr. Brooks’ big, plodding version of government accurately describes the federal government as it exists today. But if “government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order,” as Brooks writes, then Uncle Sam’s pace of operation will need to change drastically in the face of a changing climate.

Unless, of course, the U.S. Government is in charge of maintaining basic order for only affluent, politically empowered people. The state may be responsible for providing essential infrastructure and service to allow us to have our memorable meals in the great outdoors, but do poor people picnic in the park?


  1. Yes, Presidents can now declare war, Constitution be damned. 
  2. We take off our shoes for TSA screening at airports because someone once hid a weapon in his footwear, but rules rarely look forward to the next possible calamity. 
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2 thoughts on “In Response to Mr. Brooks, Part 2

  1. My reaction to your most recent article: To start, very well written. I instinctively stopped to check around a few paragraphs in to see if you were still quoting a published work- words were molten glass in your chihuly like hands (I just visited his museum…). Devils advocate section – because tearing something down is always easier than building it up. While your article did excite me towards a war like mobilization against irresponsible environmental stewardship, I can’t help but think of the debacle that’s come from every “War on…” perpetrated by our govt. The War on Drugs= a country #1 in incarceration rates largely for minor infractions and the effective legitimization of drug cartels by engineering them as the most viable supplier of a widely sought after product. The War on Terror= the greatest undermining of perhaps the most resolute democratic system in history. This, along with their current track record, leads me to the fear of a govt war on global warming that subsidizes ethanol to the detriment of sustainable farming, affordable fuel and clean engines; subsidizes oil companies who promise to diversify into alternative energy only to spend .05% of profits on alt.energy research and 1% on feel good ad campaigns. I think the best possible role the government could take at this time is to actually step back from their current programs and move towards a nuts and bolts education public awareness campaign and research on the state of the environment. Expose and convince people of reality and then when you have the power of a public aware of their own reality (rather than deliberately resistant to it) and leverage an empowered market economy to create a thoroughly viably sustainable energy structure. Some say I’m a dreamer.

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    • I must have been high on drugs when I came up with that “war on climate change” idea. Or maybe I was influenced by terrorism. (If I post this comment will the NSA start tracking my activity more closely as it’s recorded in their energy-devouring 1 YOTTABYTE facility that stores the whole internet and it’s history?)

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