In Response to Mr. Brooks, Part 2

Gradual government will fail in a changing climate

Originally posted on December 23, 2013 at

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 deliberation and boringness ruled the day after Hurricane Katrina, how many fewer people would have been rescued? Instead the U.S. military responded quickly and definitively­­––much better than many other countries’ governments react when faced with similar disasters.

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 war (yes, Presidents can now declare war, Constitution be damned) 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 a 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 areas 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 measures require decisive government action and flexibility for adaptive management. In contrast, the “boring, gradual, and orderly” government described by Mr. Brooks is associated with reactive policy making: rescue rather than evacuation, and then drafting new legislation to prevent the exact failure that has happened from recurring. 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.

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?



About Sam Bliss

Sam dedicates himself to the pursuit of sustainable solutions to the causes and effects of global warming. Thinking is his hobby, learning his passion, and communication his life's work. Sam attended the C2C Fellows workshop in at UC Berkeley in 2013.