Posted Online: Jan. 17, 2013, 3:29 pm
Droughts, deficit, development together challenge America
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By Mark W. Schwiebert
Climate change is real. Its effects press upon us almost daily -- from hurricanes hitting New York City, to tornadoes in the deep South, to droughts in our own backyard.
Though the culprit is often described as "global warming," the gradual increase in the earth's temperature has spawned what has been perhaps better described as "global weirding" -- strange and dramatic weather patterns leaving ruin in their wake.
Locally, last summer produced the worst drought in the last 50 years -- one which continues to effect over 60 percent of the nation.
It is true our relatively mild winter weather over the last several years has provided a pleasant relief from the harsher weather we are used to in the Midwest. But this also affects soil moisture and condition, which in turn increases the need for even stronger and more toxic fertilizers and herbicides and makes traditional crops harder to grow.
These environmental problems are accelerating largely due to exploding global human population and consumption. World population recently reached the 7 billion mark -- up from 3 billion just 50 years ago. And the rapidly expanding economies of China and India assure that the roughly 2 billion people living in those countries will contribute significantly to the greenhouse gases and other waste streams we in the West have been producing at a prodigious rate for at least the last century.
Clean up after the physical damage caused by environmental disasters is fast becoming a major financial concern as well. Major disasters -- generally considered those costing $1 billion or more to remedy -- have doubled in the last 10 years. Hurricane Sandy alone is expected to cost over $60 billion to clean up. And this doesn't consider the psychological and emotional havoc these disasters leave behind.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, we continue to wrestle with the nation's deficit. Largely caused by ill-timed tax cuts, two expensive foreign wars, and a serious recession triggered by unregulated financial markets, it is good to note the wars are winding down and we are gradually pulling out of the recession due to increasing economic growth.
This last factor -- economic growth -- is especially important in dealing with the deficit. Economic growth shrinks deficits. Many of us will recall that in the 1990s, strong economic expansion nationwide together with slightly higher tax rates than we have now, actually led to a budget surplus. This makes sense, since as more people work and earn more, government revenues go up, expenses go down, and the deficit shrinks.
But how do we deal jointly with droughts -- and the related environmental problems caused by too much consumption -- and deficits -- which are reduced by economic growth fueled by more consumption? The two problems seem to point us in opposite directions.
To grapple with the mounting problems of environmental disasters, we will need to develop new, less environmentally risky processes and products.
Whether renovation of hydropower plants, like the City of Rock Island undertook in 2007-2010, or expanding wind power, such as the State of Iowa has promoted over the last decade, jobs in environmentally responsible enterprises will only increase in number and importance in the years ahead.
Innovative buildings like the "cool" new Kone tower in downtown Moline and the innovative Metrolink Service Facility being built in Rock Island, will become more common as businesses and governments look to reduce costs while also being more environmentally responsible. This will generate many new jobs in construction and engineering.
And a range of new products from hybrid or electric cars to more efficient "Energy Star" appliances, will create manufacturing jobs with a better environmental footprint.
The Environmental Revolution which is gradually succeeding the century and a half old Industrial Revolution, will allow us to witness development that responds to challenges of drought and deficits at the same time. This Environmental Revolution affords the ability to do good while also doing well: to be environmentally responsible while at the same time improving the bottom line.
Major companies like Wal-Mart and Mid America Energy have already discovered this.
They are already pursuing more environmentally sound practices in their buildings and operations to run even more efficiently. Other businesses and governments will follow suit. We will need to move from a consumption based economy to a more conservation based economy.
This should gladden the hearts of liberals as well as conservatives -- whose name, after all, derives from the root word "conserve."
Droughts. Deficits. Development. These seemingly separate and vexing problems are actually linked together. They pose us with the challenge to fashion more environmentally sustainable products and processes which grow the economy, while at the same time preserving our natural world for present and future generations.
Mark W. Schwiebert, an attorney, served as mayor of Rock Island for 20 years.