Paying for Climate Change by Gutting Programs to Deal with It

Brian Beutler has a post predicting that Eric Cantor will do the same thing with Irene disaster aid he did with hypothetical aid to his own constituents after the earthquake: demand budget cuts to pay for any aid.

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Irene — a much costlier natural disaster — Cantor may make the same demand, which could touch off a bitter fight on Capitol Hill.

“We aren’t going to speculate on damage before it happens, period,” his staff told me Thursday when I asked about the impending storm. “But, as you know, Eric has consistently said that additional funds for federal disaster relief ought to be offset with spending cuts.”

This is a big problem. The budget is already stretched very thin, and even Cantor has asked his members not to provoke another fight about cutting spending beyond its already agreed-upon levels. And if clean-up costs reach into the billions, paying for it by cutting spending will damage other important services, despite the fact that the usual standard is to not use natural disasters as political bargaining chips.

Three things are going on here by my count. First, Republicans have learned an obvious lesson since they retook the House — that they can control the agenda in Washington, and put popular government programs under attack, if and only if they have some leverage over Democrats to play along. The government shutdown fight in April was their first victory. The debt limit showdown was their piece de resistance.

Second, there are political pitfalls to this approach, particularly when it requires Republicans to publicly stake out specific positions. Cutting government spending might focus group well, but privatizing Medicare does not, as Republicans learned quite painfully earlier this year. This augurs for slashing spending in nebulous ways — capping discretionary spending, and spreading the cuts out across myriad federal programs; or promising to “find monies” in the budget to offset new expenses. Death by a thousand, invisible cuts.

Third, the right flank of the Republican party expects no less. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, Cantor’s predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) claimed Republicans had pared discretionary spending back enough that federal aid could be financed with new debt. He came under attack from members of his own party and quickly reversed himself. Looks like Cantor learned his lesson.

At issue is, in part, the number of disasters FEMA has had to respond to, which has sapped its disaster release funds.

The size of Irene matters because the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund has dipped below a key threshold.

It is now at $792 million, congressional sources said Friday. Normally when the fund dips below $1 billion, FEMA announces it can only meet the most immediate needs such as clearing debris.

On Saturday FEMA announced that because the fund had reached $792 million, it had in fact reached immediate needs status.

The announcement prompted House GOP appropriators to blast the administration for allowing the FEMA funding standoff to continue to this point.

[snip]

Before Hurricane Irene and the Virginia earthquake, 2011 saw historic Mississippi river valley flooding, North Dakota flooding, and massive tornados in the Midwest and South.

The agency told Congress this summer it could need up to $4 billion more in funding for a total of $6.8 billion in 2012.

What all remains unsaid in this is that climate change is likely contributing to the increased disaster expenses this year. NOAA has a catalog of the nine “weather disasters” that caused more than $1 billion in damages this year (this would not include the earthquake in any case, and only goes through August 15). In total, these events have done more than $35 billion in damage, which is a record (again, that’s before Irene’s damages), and killed at least 594 people. Here’s the damage done:

  1. Groundhog Day blizzard, January 29- February 3: $1.1 billion in insured losses, over $2 billion total. 36 deaths
  2. Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 4-5: $1.6 billion in insured losses, over $2.3 billion total, 9 deaths
  3. Southeast/Midwest tornadoes, April 8-11, 2011: $1.5 billion in insured losses, over $2.2 billion total, zero deaths
  4. Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, April 14-16: $1.4 billion in insured losses, over $2 billion total, 38 deaths
  5. Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes, April 25-30: $6.6 billion in insured losses, over $9.0 billion total, 327 deaths
  6. Midwest/Southeast tornadoes, May 22-27: $4.9 in insured losses, over $7.0 billion total, 177 deaths
  7. Southern Plains/Southwest drought, heatwave, and wildfires, spring-summer: direct losses of over $5 billion
  8. Mississippi River flooding, spring-summer: ongoing losses estimated at $2.0-$4.0 billion, 2 deaths
  9. Upper Midwest flooding, summer: ongoing losses over $2.0 billion, at least 5 deaths

Add to that the $2.6 billion in estimated insured losses with Irene (though as much as a billion of that is in the Caribbean) and at least 25 deaths in the US, and those billions and those deaths begin to add up.

Yet in response, the Republicans have been targeting programs–like clean energy vehicles–as their “offsets” to disaster funding.

At some point, we’re going to need to address this as “climate change” rather than just “serial Mother Nature” requiring budget offsets.

Perhaps the way to force that issue is to point out who is suffering because of this. The biggest number of deaths came in Alabama and Missouri, not the elite East Coast. The big damages came in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama, Tennesee, the Dakotas.

Climate change exacerbated weather events are devastating red states as much as the blue states Irene just hit. It is time to stop treating them as discrete events, paid for by cutting some of the same core government functions helping to deal with climate change generally. If Republicans are going to make this a fight, it’s time to finally start pointing to how climate change denialism is killing the constituents of those denialists.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

22 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Well, the first thing to do is for Obama to tell the FEMA administrator to spend no money in Cantor’s district – not for the earthquake, not for the hurricane. And the same for Lindsey Graham’s SC, and any other wingnut’s district. Alabama? Cut them off. Misssissippi? Cut them off.

    Target the money in districts that voted Democratic. Keep Republican governors’ (e.g., Christie) hands off the money.

    Fuck the Republicans. And make a PR issue out of their conduct: “Republicans revel in the suffering of others.” With examples. Everyone can understand that.

    Not that he will. Fucking feckless idiot.

  2. John Casper says:

    The wingnuts are exploiting the results of “concentration” in science, as opposed to integration. Even within concentrations, the highly specialized vocabularies prevent those in related fields from “netting out,” what their peers are doing and how it impacts their research. Andy Fastow’s “special purpose entities,” confirm that it happens in Finance/Accounting, was well as the hard and soft sciences.

  3. MadDog says:

    Sorry for the OT here EW, but as I know you were out enjoying Sleeping Bear Dunes the past few days, I wanted to ask you whether you had seen or recorded Sunday’s “must see” new 2 hour National Geographic documentary “The Liquid Bomb Plot”.

    If you had, I expect we’ll see a post here on the “interesting” observations and conclusions that one can’t help but draw.

    If you hadn’t, then since there is no replay date in sight, I can provide the links to download it to watch on your computer which I’m convinced that you’ll really want to do.

  4. klynn says:

    My daughter was yelled at during a science fair experience. She did a project on acid rain. At the end, she made a point to counter an argument a judge tried to make about how acid rain is not an issue any more and that her project had no meaning. She stood up to the judge with some hard facts, making the point that her project had ample meaning. She then asked the judge if they did not believe in climate change. The judge told her, “No, I do not.”

    She then asked the following question, “Then how do you explain the acidification of the world’s oceans and the coral reef dying due to the acidification?”

    Crickets from the judge.

    “I thought that might be your response, ” she replied to the judge.

  5. MadDog says:

    @klynn: Anybody else get the idea that the impressive klynn children we’ve all caught glimpses of over the years have something to do with their parents?

    Yes, me too! *g*

  6. klynn says:

    @MadDog:

    Oh my MD!

    klynn and mrklynn blushing MD!

    (I guess the point of my comment was, if a kid can get it, why can’t the adults? And the kids are asking the same question…If I can understand this simple science, why can’t you?)

  7. scribe says:

    @klynn: The only response that might have topped that would have been “then perhaps you shold not be judging science fairs.”

    But I think the klynn kids were also given manners, so they wouldn’t go that far.

  8. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: For those of you who didn’t catch or record Sunday’s “must see” new 2 hour National Geographic documentary “The Liquid Bomb Plot”, a couple key takeaways:

    1. “War” versus law enforcment. The attitude of the Bush/Cheney regime in the summer of 2006 was that they were at War and that anything goes versus the Brits’ law enforcement attitude that they needed sufficient evidence to charge and convict the Liquid Bomb plotters.

    This caused a great deal of friction between the highest levels of the US and British intelligence and counterterrorism organizations. The documentary’s commentary from the participants on both sides was explicit and unambiguous about this.

    Key US participants who commented extensively throughout the 2 hour documenary were then Homeland Security Director Mikey Chertoff and then CIA (and former NSA) Director Mikey Hayden.

    The US was only concerned with stopping the plot by any means of War necessary (sound familiar?) and didn’t give a rat’s ass about any “law enforcement” function like “prosecution”.

    The Brits weren’t buying into the idea that they could simply grab the Liquid Bomb plotters and detain them forever without charges and trials.

    2. Which lead to then CIA (and former NSA) Director Mikey Hayden smirkingly detailing how at the very crux of the Liquid Bomb plot timing 2 days before the Brits were intending to arrest simultaneously arrest the plotters in the UK and have the Pakistanis arrest the plot’s mastermind Rashid Rauf in Pakistan, Mikey went gallivanting off to meet with his ISI counterpart in Pakistan to “brief” him about the plot’s mastermind Rashid Rauf who was living openly in Pakistan.

    Mikey Hayden insists that he didn’t ask Pakistan’s ISI to arrest and detain Rashid Rauf, but low and behold, while Mikey was still in Pakistan, coincidentally the ISI did grab and detain Rashid Rauf. Mikey proceeded to gloatingly state that while he didn’t “ask” Pakistan’s ISI to do this, he was plenty happy that they did.

    The Brits however, were royally pissed (to coin a phrase) since the Britain-based plotters were in constant electronic contact with Rashid Rauf and needed his approval for plot go-ahead, and the Brits feared that the UK-based plotters would find out about Rashid Rauf’s arrest and immediately attempt to put the plot into effect.

    That left the Brits with what they estimated was no more than a 2-3 hour window to assemble hundreds of law enforcement people to somehow immediately swoop down and arrest 20-some UK-based plotters.

    Five years later, it is evident from the British commentary throughout the documentary that they are still royally pissed at the US, and particularly at Mikey Hayden.

    For those who missed the documentary and would like to download the video to watch on their computers, the 480p version of the video can be downloaded from these locations:

    Download (Filesonic):
    http://www.filesonic.com/file/1755245881/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part1.rar
    http://www.filesonic.com/file/1755247901/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part2.rar

    Mirror (Fileserve):
    http://www.fileserve.com/file/62fHeJe/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part1.rar
    http://www.fileserve.com/file/xSv2xyr/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part2.rar

    Mirror (Wupload):
    http://www.wupload.com/file/119647174/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part1.rar
    http://www.wupload.com/file/119647426/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part2.rar

    Mirror (ul.to):
    http://ul.to/u74baswf/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part1.rar
    http://ul.to/z0rmvbl3/The.Liquid.Bomb.Plot.480p.HDTV.x264-mSD.part2.rar

    The files from these sites are interchangeable, so for example, you can download Part 1 from Filesonic while simultaneously downloading Part 2 from Wupload.

    The 480p version of the documentary amounts to about 450 MB.

    A 720p higher resolution version of the documentary is also available, but since that amounts to about 2+ GB of download, I’ll not post the links here unless someone specifically asks for it.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking–how do you pick someone who doesn’t believe in climate change to judge a science fair?

  10. prostratedragon says:

    @emptywheel: Or in acid rain for that matter. It was after all my high school chem teacher who taught me about it. Back in 1966. Because he knew chemistry, plus a bit of earth science.

  11. klynn says:

    @emptywheel:

    mrklynn and I were floored when daughter-of-klynn told us what happened.

    I had to share the story with you because I thought it related squarely to the points you are making in your post irt denialism.

    Acidification is hard core factual climate science. A global warming denialist cannot deny acidification. My daughter has been making the point that addressing CO2 levels should first be argument from the science of acidification because the scientific evidence is quite solid. EPA HAD to create acid rain policy and regulatory measures regarding emissions that create acid rain; otherwise, Canada would have had much to address the US about in the world court.

    The emissions policies for acid rain could be applied to CO2 emission IRT ocean acidification. It would get the ball rolling from my daughters perspective. And, I admit, I agree with her.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This would seem consistent with the argument Glenzilla reiterates today. This strangling of government programs that benefit the commonwealth – here, disaster forecasting, preparedness and recovery – is intended. So is its corollary, which is to maximize the flow of wealth to the already wealthy, while investing the state with ever more resources to forecast, prepare for and obstruct social agitation that might attempt to thwart or reverse that economic and political order.

    Par example: How can a small town in the middle of Alaska justify dozens of high tech security cameras that watch its pick-up trucked residents. Because pedestrian polar bears, whose real plight the government wants to avoid documenting or because the feds granted the money in order to federalize such expenditures nationally?

    Why does a small lake in the middle of Nebraska need a high-tech, weaponized side-sonar mounted Zodiac rigid inflatable boat? To fend off the bad guy in the next techno thriller or to normalize similar but greater expenditures elsewhere?

    Why do we need to starve FEMA, our weather forecasting and earthquake detection systems of resources while subsidizing industrial excesses that aggravate global warming? Because disasters are more profitable for those who can immunize themselves from them or because putting our governmental heads in the sand is a better way to see the horizon?

  13. gmoke says:

    You know, Solar IS Civil Defense. The flashlight, cell phone, radio, and extra set of batteries you’re supposed to have on hand in case of emergency can all be charged by a few square inches of solar electric panel. Add a hand crank or pedal power generator and you have a reliable source of survival power day or night, by sunlight or muscle. A solar civil defense would add to our preparedness while diminishing, at least a little, further climate change.

    I’ve been practicing this for years, saying it in public and writing about it but nobody’s been particularly interested yet.

    More at http://solarray.blogspot.com/2008/05/solar-is-civil-defense-illustrated.html

  14. P J Evans says:

    @earlofhuntingdon:
    They’re going to have a wonderful time immunizing themselves from the effects of the disasters that are going to continue happening. especially when the rest of us start dying and the bodies don’t get buried because the people who should take care of things were all laid off and there’s no money to hire more, or to pay for the equipment.
    I’d love to see the Rs in congress doing disaster cleanup. Preferably with hand tools.

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