Houston Floods (Hurricane Harvey) Who pays?

Not Exxonmobil, Ineos or Cuadrilla. But no one seems to be asking how much of the energy in the atmosphere is natural, and how much is man-made?

Greenhouse gases increase the energy which the atmosphere can hold. There are three important greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and water (H2O). All three are waste products of industry, and have been increasing ever since the start of the industrial revolution 250 years ago. Only CO2 has been monitored closely, so far as I am aware. CH4 is thirty-four times more potent than CO2, but its contribution is accelerating, due to leaks from fracking, and melting permafrost. Water is much less important per tonne, but jet planes are continuously putting large quantities of it in the previously bone dry stratosphere.

So why pick on Exxonmobil etc? Most of the increase in greenhouse gases is historical.

The fact remains that rising temperatures are only one consequence of the extra energy in the atmosphere. The same amount of energy cannot raise temperatures, and at the same time lift trillions of tonnes (cubic metres) of water, or drive hurricane force winds.

Disasters have always happened. As late as, say 1950, human additions to the energy in the atmosphere could be dismissed as negligible. For all I know it may still be. But that is the point. We need to find out. I suspect that it is already significant, but even if we eco-doomsters are wrong, even a continuation of current levels of economic activity, never mind continued growth, means there must come a point at which this matters.

From that point onwards, and my estimate is that we have already passed it, then each and every  producer of greenhouse gases must pay for the proportion of the restitution and reconstruction costs which can be attributed to their emissions. This will mean of course that they must charge more for whatever they provide.

Who pays for the historical emissions, caused when everybody thought they were worth it? That comes back to simple social justice. I do not need to reiterate here the case for redistribution against rentiers. Whoever has the wealth now, be it transnational corporations or individuals, they must share it, at least to the extent that everyone on Earth has what the UN Declaration of human Rights says they are entitled to.

Mind you, for me (being an eco-doomster), this opens another can of worms – population. Hans Rosling assured us that world population is stabilizing anyway, but apart from the worrying exceptions to his thesis (Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan), it is already far too high to be sustainable, let alone the increase Rosling admits before it ‘plateaus’.

As I explain in my book (résumé in the ‘Pages’ in this weblog), both questions were solved by a tribe in New Guinea (and many others like them) with minimal resources and technology: if everybody has basic needs, they will take care of the ecosphere.

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