Same meltdown, same risky business. Just as Citibankers and Icelandic bankers got to engage in wild financial practices that did not reflect the real risks of massive defaults or losses, developers, oil companies, coal companies, auto companies, and electric utilities sold energy, mobility, lighting, heating, and cooling based on hydrocarbons at prices that did not reflect the real costs to the planet from all the climate-changing carbon dioxide molecules we were building up in the atmosphere. And every one of us who enjoyed using these underpriced carbon-emitting energy sources got to privatize the gains as well. The losses, however—the long-term impact of all this carbon building up in the atmosphere—we have socialized. We charged all of this on our children's Visa cards to be paid by them and their children's children far into the future, because that carbon will remain in the atmosphere affecting the earth's climate for several thousand years. Maybe we'll be gone, but our children and their children will be here. This is the only home we have and, as environmentalists are fond of saying, Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts. So we better find a better way to grow.
"We have created a way of raising standards of living that we could not possibly pass on to our children," said Joseph Romm, the physicist and climate expert who writes the blog Climateprogress.org. "We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks—water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish, and arable land—and not by generating renewable flows. You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior. But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, 'This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate . . .' Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy."
Mother Nature's Dow
The sudden loss of an ice shelf that has been around for thousands of years should get our attention. But many other less dramatic warning signs are indicating that our risky business is ravaging the natural world as much as the financial one. We know very well how to measure the costs of reckless economic behavior. When the market hits a wall, it shows up in red numbers on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which fell sharply during the Great Recession. But no one has devised a Dow that with one simple number tells us how Mother Nature is doing. If we did, though, it would be safe to say that in recent years Mother Nature's Dow hit new scientific lows.
If you just sample the climate and biodiversity research in 2008 and 2009, what is striking is how insistently some of the world's best scientists have been warning that climate change and biodiversity loss are happening faster with bigger impacts than they anticipated just a few years ago. Many of the key estimates about the speed and breadth of climate change offered by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which were made as recently as 2007, are now considered woefully out of date. I will discuss this in more detail later, but just a couple of examples: