Image: Aftermath of the Flood of Johnstown, from the Museum
Wealth Inequality as a Harbinger of Disaster, Then and Now
by David Hopkinson
Climate scientists agree that emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels into the atmosphere trap heat and are raising the temperature of the Earth. In the long run — not very long, actually — we are heading towards global disaster.1
Public response to global warming has been mild, perhaps because outcomes are only hinted at: “If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.” 2 Scientists are precise, not intending to be obscure. If people better understood what’s being predicted, they might take the science more seriously.
Here’s a comparable dilemma: the Johnstown Flood of 1889. After the Civil War, there was a period of rapid and extreme economic growth, known as the “Gilded Age.” Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889 was a town of 22,000. Recent European immigrants worked in a steel mill, which paid well, although pollution was rampant.
A Fishing and Hunting Club 15 miles up (and 50 feet above) is the same Little Conemaugh river that still runs through Johnstown. For the recreation of its wealthy members, an earthen dam had been rebuilt, creating a huge lake. The dam was on privately-owned property. Many residents of Johnstown feared that it was unsafe, while others insisted that it was not a problem. Nothing was done to resolve the question.
The owner of the property, who had established the Hunting and Fishing Club for the wealthy industrialists of Pittsburgh, knew nothing about dams. The workers whom he hired lacked any dam-building experience. No consulting engineer was used. An engineer who later inspected the dam reported that it was unsafe. The owner chose not to believe him.
Nine years later, the dam failed. Previous false alarms due to leaks that turned out to be inconsequential had created complacency, so warnings by telegraph were ignored. Johnstown had flooded before, but nobody calculated what would happen if the dam were to fail. Some people in town later reported that they believed the river would rise only a few inches.
To retain fish, a grid had been put across the spillway. As rain filled the lake, the grid became clogged with debris that couldn’t be removed. After water flowed over the top, the dam collapsed. When a engineer saw what was about to happen, he tied down his train whistle and sped toward Johnstown. People knew what the steady shriek of the train whistle meant. Many ran to safety.
Twenty million tons of water rushed down the narrow valley, a wall of water 40 feet high. Some people held on to floating debris, but the mass piled up against a stone bridge on the far side of town — and caught fire. Those who had managed to escape could only stand and watch in horror as people who had escaped drowning burned to death. More than 2,000 people were killed. Members of the club left, never to return, and for the most part, never to speak of the incident.
Liability law as it existed at that time made it difficult to prove that any particular individual was at fault. Nobody was held accountable, yet obviously the dam failed due to willful ignorance, ineptitude, neglect, and indifference. A jury decided the flood was an Act of Providence.3
Some townspeople had believed, perhaps naively, that members of the club were benevolent and would make certain that the dam was safe. However, it’s doubtful that members of the club thought very much about Johnstown. Why would they? The differences in social status were extreme. There was no personal contact. The club was exclusive. The men came to the lake to escape their responsibilities, not to embrace them.
Just as climate science is denied by powerful people today, the individual who owned the dam at that time rejected the expert advice that warned of potential disaster. (He had died before the flood). There was no personal connection between the people who had the power to fix the dam, but who would not be subjected to danger for failing to do so, and those who would bear the consequences, but were powerless to ensure that the dam was safe. What could the people of Johnstown have done to protect themselves, other than hope for the best? We face the same question today.
Wealth Inequality and Privilege
Being wealthy means trying to avoid strangers who want something, or worse, have something to prove. Insulated by intimidated underlings, and protected from intrusion, the rich expect solicitous behavior. Accustomed to deferral, and removed from abrasive needs of others, they live in socially-stratified isolation, and grow accustomed to getting their way.
Commoners about to meet the Queen are requested to observe tradition: refrain from speaking until she has spoken. The Queen has the first word - and the last. That is what privilege means. The privilege of wealth means being shielded from inconvenient truths which you prefer to avoid.
Wealth inequality requires inauthenticity. Slavery, the extreme form of wealth inequality, forces inauthenticity to the very extreme. Slaveowners pretend that slaves are happy. Slaves conceal their rage in order to avoid punishment, and in the hope that they will be rewarded with easier work. The problem with such pretense is that eventually, it becomes your reality.
For example, after the Civil War, a former slave spoke of Confederate officers who planned a battle during dinner. She explained that they kept talking and didn’t cover the map when she set down their food. It seems that it never occurred to them that she might be a spy — which she was.
Climate-crisis and wealth-inequality are the same problem, just as dam-safety and wealth-inequality were the same problem in 1889 Johnstown. People who lived (and died) in Johnstown couldn’t fix the dam without help from the members of the club. However, wealth inequality erodes a shared sense of common purpose, and creates toxic social stability. Those without wealth become less effective politically, and the wealthy lose sight of how their fate is linked to people who are not wealthy. This is as true today as it was in 1889.
The Impasse of Estimated Reserves
Today, estimated reserves of coal and oil are counted as assets by fossil fuel companies. Estimated reserves are “money in the ground” used as collateral for loans to fund more exploration and extraction. But the total of all estimated reserves exceeds our “carbon budget” to a dangerous degree. Estimated reserves consist of far more fossil fuels than should ever be used, if we are to succeed in keeping global warming below a 2 degree C increase recommended by climate scientists.4 What is in the ground should be left there. Pollution anywhere becomes pollution everywhere.
Estimated reserves are an asset for the industry, but a liability for the Earth, because using all of them would add far too much CO2 to the atmosphere, provoking a global climate disaster. To stretch the analogy, total estimated reserves of coal and oil are like the lake above Johnstown in 1889. The difference is that this disaster will impact everybody.
The business model of the fossil fuel industry is not sustainable. Citizens may force their governments to impose limits on emissions of CO2. If and when that happens, the reserves become “stranded assets” and fossil fuels will become risky investments. 5 Fear of industry collapse drives climate-crisis denial.
What Will Happen If We Do Nothing
A lesson from the Johnstown Flood of 1889 is that consequences must be clear. “Global warming” emphasizes rising sea levels. That may be misleading. It’s not just that the Earth will grow warmer, nor is it just that sea levels will rise. That is only the beginning.
As global warming disrupts climate systems, weather created by those systems become less predictable and more extreme. Weather-related disasters (such as droughts and wildfires in one area, deluge and flooding in another) are expected to occur with increasing frequency. As climate systems destabilize, they will pass a tipping point, after which chaotic weather and frequent disasters will become the norm.6
Escalating temperatures and chaotic weather, with increasingly frequent disasters, will mean increasing discomfort. Life will become at first unpleasant; then miserable; then intolerable; and finally, unlivable.7
The destabilization of climate systems will be like an avalanche: impossible to stop, gathering power as it proceeds — similar to the Johnstown Flood, for that matter. The difference is that runaway systems familiar to us eventually find a resting state. An avalanche seeks its angle of repose. This may not be true for disrupted global climate systems, which may never stabilize.
If we were to stop all carbon emissions immediately, temperatures would continue to rise until the process completed the global warming it produced, one hundred years from now. That’s why there’s urgency to act immediately.8
Destruction of our natural environment will mean the collapse of civilization as we know it. We can’t have one without the other, because they are inextricably linked. Global climate crisis is not just another issue of concern to environmentalists. The threat is greater than anything we have ever faced, except, perhaps, for nuclear war.9
Is this a “worst case” scenario? A “carbon budget” is the estimated amount of CO2 that can enter into the atmosphere and still remain at or below 2 degrees C increase. It is the “safe” limit for global temperature increase, where consequences may be tolerable. The problem is that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. If CO2 emissions persist at the present rate, we will pass the 2 degree C ceiling in just 13 years.10 There is no reason to expect that CO2 emissions won’t continue on that trajectory, given that we continue to use fossil fuels at an increasing rate.
Consequences of rising global temperature will, by 2050, show us that we are in very serious trouble. If CO2 emissions continuing at the present rate, the “worst case” scenario becomes the only scenario.
What Must Be Done
In 1889 Johnstown, disparity in wealth and social class were factors in maintaining a dangerous status quo. People in Johnstown had little sense of political power and many just hoped for the best. We cannot do the same and expect a different outcome.
Needed today is a mass movement to put pressure upon institutions to remove fossil fuels from their investment portfolios. The divestment movement on campus is likely to grow rapidly as college students realize that, with a global climate crisis, their future is going to be taken from them.
As each institution — university, city, state, town and religious group — announces its divestment decision, the moral issue will be made visible to the public.11 Divestment helped end apartheid. It can do the same with the climate crisis.
A “fee and rebate” for fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - is being promoted. Money collected at the the mine or wellhead from the fossil fuel companies is to be distributed to consumers, either directly or in the reduction of other taxes, so that they are able to pay for the more expensive sustainable energy. The fee will start small and escalate slowly, nudging us all toward renewable sources of energy. Such a program has been remarkably successful in British Columbia, Canada.12
Organized, engaged citizens can be a stunningly effective political force. The climate crisis situation is serious, but not hopeless. What we don’t have is time.
1. Richard Somerville, 4th Annual Keeling Lecture: “The Scientific Case for Urgent Action to Limit Climate Change,” https://scripps.ucsd.edu/events/4th-annual-keeling-lecture-scientific-case-urgent-action-limit-climate-change
2. James Hansen,“Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?,” http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf
3. David McCullough, “The Johnstown Flood,” Simon & Schuster, 1987. See also: http://www.jaha.org/FloodMuseum/history.html
4. Bill McKibben, “Globla Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719
5. Bevis Longstreth, “What can anyone do about Climate Change?, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bevis-longstreth/what-can-anyone-do-about-_b_3471581.html
6. Richard Somerville, 4th Annual Keeling Lecture: "The Scientific Case for Urgent Action to Limit Climate Change,” https://scripps.ucsd.edu/events/4th-annual-keeling-lecture-scientific-case-urgent-action-limit-climate-change
7. David McCandless,"How Many Gigatons of Carbon Dioxide?," http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/dec/07/carbon-dioxide-doha-information-beautiful#zoomed-picture
8. Richard Somerville, 4th Annual Keeling Lecture: "The Scientific Case for Urgent Action to Limit Climate Change,” https://scripps.ucsd.edu/events/4th-annual-keeling-lecture scientific-case-urgent-action-limit-climate-change
9. Ryan L. Cooper, “Why Climate Change is Not An Environmental Issue,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELMXJts5qic
10. David McCandless http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/dec/07/carbon-dioxide-doha-information-beautiful#zoomed-picture
11. Brooke Jarvis“Can a Divestment Campaign Move the Fossil Fuel Industry?,” http://e360.yale.edu/feature/can_a_divestment_campaign_move_the_fossil_fuel_industry/2629/
12. John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli, “Can a carbon tax work without hurting the economy? Ask British Columbia,” http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/jul/30/climate-change-british-columbia-carbon
Published with a different title in Whatcom Watch, Nov. 2013