By CARL SACK
At the time of this writing, Hurricane Nate is plowing through the eastern United States, the 14th named storm of what is on track to be the most costly Atlantic hurricane season on record. Over the summer, wildfires scorched millions of acres across the western U.S. and Canada, darkening the skies with smoke from the Pacific Coast to as far east as upstate New York. This year’s monsoon season has seen unprecedented flooding in Asia, killing more than 1200 people and displacing over 40 million from their homes.
Are these disasters natural, or do they point to the threats posed by late capitalism to society and to the very Earth itself?
If one refuses to accept such disasters as random “acts of God” and admits that such disasters are growing more frequent and severe and impacting more people, then it is important to understand the dynamics at work and how socialists should respond. These disasters are united by at least two trends: the heating of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and the failure of the capitalist state to adequately plan for foreseeable disasters or address human needs in their aftermath.
The existence of human-caused climate change is now beyond dispute even by some of the most ardent backers of oil, gas, and coal extraction. The Trump administration’s muzzling of the EPA and other federal agencies cannot change the facts—the world is on track for the worst-case climate scenario envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one that would warm the planet 4-8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Even the two-degree rise targeted by the toothless Paris Climate Accord would spell displacement for millions in low-lying coastal areas. At six degrees, climate models tell us, large areas of the planet would become uninhabitable due to roasting temperatures alone, never mind storms, fires, diseases, famine, or sea-level rise.
The physics behind global warming’s impact on extreme weather is straightforward. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, which causes more evaporation. Warmer oceans contribute to that evaporation. Greater evaporation rates dry out the land faster, contributing to droughts if the dominant weather patterns move moisture elsewhere.
The water vapor in the atmosphere holds energy; when it condenses into liquid water, it releases that energy, causing storms. The more water vapor condenses, the more energy there is, and the stronger the storms. The result is a cycle of drought and deluge. Some areas experience more frequent and extreme droughts than historically, while others get more frequent and extreme deluge.
Drought in the West; flooding in the East
In the U.S. West, drought is being called the “new normal” by scientists. After five years of intense drought, the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada last winter was one of the biggest on record—causing flooding as it melted. But farther north, drought lingered and intensified, causing one of the most active fire seasons on record. Overall, the Western fire season has lengthened by two and a half months since 1970 due to global warming, with twice the number of acres burned per year as would be expected without it.
Over 10 million acres—an area almost three times the size of Connecticut—burned across the U.S. Northwest and British Columbia this summer. Portland, Ore., residents were shrouded in asthma-inducing smoke from the fires for weeks on end. Health officials told people to stay indoors whenever possible. At one point, satellite photos showed fire smoke wreathing the northern U.S. all the way to Niagara Falls.
If the fires out West are the drought side, the Gulf Coast provides the counterpoint. Hurricane Harvey was the third “500-year flood” event that Houston saw in three years (i.e., the statistical probability of even one of these floods occurring any given year is about 1 in 500). After 40+ inches of rain, places well outside of floodplains shown on federal flood insurance maps were inundated.
But global warming was not the only environmental culprit of Houston’s flooding. The city is built on bottomland with a 2000-mile network of natural bayous. Native prairie grasses with roots that burrow a dozen feet into the sod can soak up tremendous quantities of rainwater. But the city’s explosive growth has paved over much of the prairie land with impervious buildings and concrete, while local officials have simply refused to limit the profits of developers with zoning regulations.
Instead, driven by the irrational logic of capitalist development, the city’s engineers have buried their heads in the sand. A recent piece by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica quotes flood-control officials as calling the conservation-oriented conclusions of their agency’s own flood-management research “absurd” and dismissing climate science.
Then there was the response to the hurricane—or lack thereof. Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 storm, the same intensity as Hurricane Katrina when it devastated New Orleans in 2005. But preparations were haphazard at best. While the state issued mandatory evacuations for several coastal counties, Houston city officials explicitly told residents to stay in the city—largely because they feared huge traffic jams with cars trapped and inundated as waters rose. Requisitioning buses and trains to speed evacuations and include those without private vehicles was simply not considered as an option.
Residents who have returned to the highly industrialized Texas Gulf Coast face cleaning up a toxic mess from flooded oil refineries. In Port Arthur, many of the town’s 15 toxic waste Superfund sites flooded, spreading carcinogenic chemicals around. A fuel storage tank in a Black neighborhood exploded, releasing a million pounds of toxic emissions into the air. Environmental justice activist Hilton Kelley told “Democracy Now!” that neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nor the Red Cross were responding to residents’ pleas for help, and many renters who evacuated were evicted by their landlords.
Puerto Rico: Imperialist policies worsen storm damage
But the damage and displacement in Texas pales in comparison to Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria knocked out electricity and water treatment across the entire island. These services are unlikely to be restored for months—not just due to the storm, but also to the cataclysm of financialization and neoliberalism that have destroyed the island’s infrastructure over the past three decades.
Financialization—described thoroughly by Lenin in “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”—is a result of the monopoly-building of corporate capital. Capitalists must increasingly invest in financial capital, i.e., interest-bearing bank assets, instead of real infrastructure to see a return on their investments. Writes Lenin: “Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits from the floating of companies, issue of stock, state loans, etc., strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levies tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of monopolists.”
This tribute is exactly what has been extracted from Puerto Rico before and during its ongoing debt crisis. The June 2016 Act of Congress relegating the U.S. island territory back to pure colonial status was named PROMESA, Spanish for “promise.” The promise was to reorient the territory’s budget toward paying the hedge fund and mutual fund investors who own its massive debt.
Signed into law by President Obama, the act created an unelected seven-member “fiscal control board” (non-ironically nicknamed the junta) to seize the island’s finances, effectively voiding the territory’s constitution. Draconian cuts to health care, pensions, and education followed. Even before the latest round of austerity, the territorial government was spending more on debt service than any of these human services.
The failed PR spectacle of U.S. President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to onlookers in one of the least-damaged parts of the island made a mockery of the real human needs of residents, most of whom still lack food, fuel, or clean drinking water weeks after the hurricane. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 shipping containers filled with food and supplies sat untouched in the Port of San Juan for over a week, the victim of a disorganized and underfunded disaster response effort.
The island’s electrical infrastructure is in shambles. The electrical utility, PREPA, was chronically underfunded before the hurricane and racked up billions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance. Even Trump admitted that rebuilding the island’s infrastructure to meet human needs will require forgiving the debt—comments which other Trump administration officials have already backpedaled on.
While the U.S. preparation and response to this season’s hurricanes has been dismal, Hurricane Irma’s impact on Cuba provides a major contrast. That storm hit Cuba as a Category 5 hurricane and did extreme damage to the island’s central and western provinces, causing major flooding in Havana. It garnered the highest death toll of any storm since 2005: 10. The low number is a testament to Cuba’s comprehensive disaster preparation and response system, one that’s admired as the best in the world.
Cuba has a state-of-the-art storm tracking system that allows the country to issue weather alerts 72 hours before landfall. The National Civil Defense agency inspects and stocks shelters and coordinates evacuations. Television and radio broadcast instructions. Neighborhood-level Committees for the Defense of the Revolution go door-to-door checking on or evacuating pregnant women, the elderly, and the infirm.
If beleaguered Cuba can take care of everyone’s needs during disaster, the wealthiest nation on Earth also should be able to. Working people in the United States must demand more from the government, starting with a nationwide organized effort to anticipate and plan for more frequent future storms and fires. FEMA should be reorganized and given a huge boost in funding along with new protocols along the lines of the Cuban model.
Puerto Rico’s debt must be forgiven now! Infrastructure in Puerto Rico must be rebuilt by the government under democratic control, funded by the federal government through higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. At the same time, Puerto Rico must be granted self-determination to forge its own economic and political future.
The U.S. government and all states must mobilize a Marshall Plan-like just transition to renewable energy—particularly wind and solar—hiring displaced workers at union wages. Ultimately, the way to address growing climate catastrophe is by replacing the system that created the crisis with a socialist system that puts people and the planet first.