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Written By: - Date published: 10:33 am, December 19th, 2011 - 24 comments
Categories: climate change, debt / deficit, Deep stuff - Tags:

Trillions have been plowed into bailing out banks, investors, and whole countries during the economic crisis. The cost easily exceeds total investment in tackling climate change. Is it, as George Monbiot argues, that elites just look out for themselves, or are humans just incapable of perceiving the danger of large, slowly-building problems?

Monbiot writes:

“capping climate change would cost around 1% of global GDP, while sitting back and letting it hit us would cost between 5 and 20%. One per cent of GDP is, at the moment, $630bn. By March 2009, Bloomberg has revealed, the US Federal Reserve had committed $7.77 trillion to the banks. That is just one government’s contribution: yet it amounts to 12 times the annual global climate change bill. Add the bailouts in other countries, and it rises several more times.
This support was issued on demand: as soon as the banks said they wanted help, they got it. On just one day the Federal Reserve made $1.2tr available – more than the world has committed to tackling climate change in 20 years……

Much of this was done both unconditionally and secretly: it took journalists two years to winkle out the detail. The banks shouted “help” and the government just opened its wallet. This all took place, remember, under George W Bush, whose administration claimed to be fiscally conservative.

But getting the US government to commit to any form of bailout for the planet – even a couple of billion – is like pulling teeth. “Unaffordable!” the Republicans (and many of the Democrats) shriek. It will wreck the economy! We’ll go back to living in caves!

I’m often struck by the wildly inflated rhetoric of those who accuse environmentalists of scaremongering. “If those scaremongers have their way they’ll destroy the entire economy” is the kind of claim uttered almost daily, without any apparent irony.

No legislator, as far as I know, has yet been able to explain why making $7.7tr available to the banks is affordable, while investing far smaller sums in new technologies and energy saving is not……..

………So why is it so easy to save the banks and so hard to save biosphere? If ever you needed evidence that our governments operate in the interests of the elite, rather than the world as a whole, here it is”

I wonder if there isn’t more parallel between the reactions to the two situations. Governments were actually warned through-out the 2000s that the house-booming/credit explosion was unsustainable but their short-term interest was in growth and happy voters. So, they let it slide until it all came tumbling down and even partial fixes have been enormously expensive. Is it the same with climate change? We could act now at relatively low cost. But we seem determined to ignore the problem until it becomes so big that facing it will be an all-consuming battle.

In many ways, we’re just hairless chimps – our minds just aren’t built to understand and rationally react to big, long-term issues. What we do understand is short-term fight or flight, and how to fight over who has power.

24 comments on “Priorities”

  1. queenstfarmer 1

    Governments were actually warned through-out the 2000s that the house-booming/credit explosion was unsustainable but their short-term interest was in growth and happy voters

    Well that certainly describes Labour during the “boom times” of the 2000s. Sadly some elements within Labour seem not to have learned too much from those events, and still criticise the Govt for not continuing Labour’s profligacy funded on short-term unsustainability.

    • Bored 1.1

      Governments were actually warned through-out the 2000s….. Where exactly QS does it say right wing OR left wing governments?

      Rather than attacking “Labours profligacy” which may or may not be true (who cares, it is irrelevant), you might answer the real charge: the current system does not, will not and is incapable of tackling climate change. All it does seem capable of (as Monbiot charges) is spending the cash on bail outs for banks and ignoring the danger.

      Is that the case, do you agree or disagree?

      • queenstfarmer 1.1.1

        Where exactly QS does it say right wing OR left wing governments?

        It refers to the housing bubble of the 2000s. NZ had a left wing government for most of that time (’99 through to late 2008, just after the bubble burst).

        you might answer the real charge: the current system does not, will not and is incapable of tackling climate change

        I would agree with that, largely because it is probably impossible to get any meaningful agreement on what “tackling” would involve. I would add some further questions such as: Should it? What will happen if it doesn’t? What are the alternatives? etc

    • fmacskasy 1.2

      You keep referring to Labour’s “profligacy” as if it were true…?

      Hard to reconcile that with the surpluses that Cullen kept making; the paying down of the massive debt incurred by National in the 1990s; whilst at the same time implementing targetted tax cuts through WFF.

      Even John Key referred to the benign state of the economy that National inherited from Labour, as the global banking crisis turned into a recession.

      • queenstfarmer 1.2.1

        The facts are that National inherited from Labour a country in recession, a crashed property and financing sector, and years of projected deficits. There was nothing very benign about the economy that National faced coming into office.

        • fmacskasy

          Not at all. Cullen was posting surpluses – the largest about $8 billion by the end of 2007. Check it out yourself;


          In fact, Labour’s economic track record – according to Treasury, the IMF, OECD, Reserve Bank, et al, was quite remarkable, according to the data;


          As for a crashed property market; even if true, property prices rise and fall like the proverbial tides. That’s part of your precious free market – the “invisible hand” working as you reckon it should. http://www.rbnz.govt.nz/speeches/0139558-1.jpg

          Since when are property prices supposed to be controlled from the Ninth Floor?

          That’s… marxism, isn’t it?! Communism!! Socialism even!!

          *tsk, tsk*

          Interesting… New Zealand is supposedly the SIXTH most open economy in the world – http://www.nzherald.co.nz/economy/news/article.cfm?c_id=34&objectid=10487077 – and you neo-liberals still aren’t satisfied! You still blame market falls on governments even when Friendmanite systems are operating!

          Of course, when the tables are reversed – it’s never the fault of Right Wing guvmints, eh? Remind us who was in power in the US when Wall Street practically collapsed in 2007/08?

          Ah yes… George W Bush.

          • queenstfarmer

            Cullen was posting surpluses – the largest about $8 billion by the end of 2007

            Yes, on the back of the housing and finance bubble. I’m sure that Bernie Madoff’s clients had record surpluses around the same time.

            But then came the pre-election PREFU, which showed the reality underlying the huge surpluses and “economic growth” of the preceding few years – in reality, it was a house of cards and the main “growth” being recorded was from runaway spending public sector spending.

            Since when are property prices supposed to be controlled from the Ninth Floor? That’s… marxism, isn’t it?! Communism!! Socialism even!!

            Oh yes they could have and should have done something. The fact is that Labour did *nothing* about the runaway property bubble for 9 years. Why? Because Cullen was too happy to reap the tax surpluses it artificially generated (and for which you are still strangely claiming as some sort of success).

            Compare that with the current Govt, who in its first 3 years:
            – Revised the tax rules – or tax rorts – to remove some key tax advantages of property
            – Overhauled the securities sector
            – Massively increased the IRD’s prosecution rate, with great results by the way
            – Removed Labour’s stupid misalignment of the personal income tax and the trust tax rate, which almost singlehandedly created an army of trust accountants and lawyers to exploit that loopholes for their wealthy clients

            And the punchline is that in the election, Labour suddenly decides that a CGT is a great idea – while in the same breath claiming it was so successful at running the economy because of … (ahem) the surpluses it generated off the back of those illusory capital gains. Not to mention the fact that the capital gains horse has largely bolted for at least 10 years.

            Of course, when the tables are reversed – it’s never the fault of Right Wing guvmints, eh?
            No – it surely is their fault. The great thing about being an independent is that you are not committed to defending any particular side. You can call it as you see it, not as you are required to see it.

            • Draco T Bastard

              Overhauled the securities sector

              IIRC, the previous government were looking at it when the shit hit the fan and then the election happened. Again, it was the way it was due to the no regulation BS of the free-market.

              Massively increased the IRD’s prosecution rate…

              The government can’t actually do that and, as such cases can take years to be put together and gotten through the courts, the prosecutions probably had nothing to do with this government. In fact, as this government has cut IRD personnel I think we can look forward to less cases and prosecutions in the near future.

              Removed Labour’s stupid misalignment of the personal income tax and the trust tax rate…

              The misalignment is more due to the vagaries of laws that are designed to benefit the rich. This is proved by this government “alignment” being a massive tax cut for the rich and tax increases (GST) for everyone else. In other words, they rewarded the thieves for being thieves rather than holding them to account.

              • queenstfarmer

                IIRC, the previous government were looking at it when the shit hit the fan

                “Looking at it”? I’m sure they were. What they weren’t doing was doing something about it. In stark contrast, Simon Power was a powerhouse on this.

                The government can’t actually do that…I think we can look forward to less cases and prosecutions in the near future.

                Oh really?

                Leap in cases as IRD boosts war on tax evasion
                The taxman has hammered fraudsters and dodgers this year – with the number of successful prosecutions already eclipsing last year’s count.

                And plenty more coming down the tracks. Again, Labour was quite happy to turn a relatively blind eye as long as the money kept rolling in to fund its massive spending habit.

                The misalignment is more due to the vagaries of laws that are designed to benefit the rich

                What nonsense. You do realise that the misalignment was created by Labour? They set up the trust rate to be lower than the personal rate – a move that would only benefit those with trusts (mainly well-to-do sorts). Why was that? And then they stood back as NZ became the “trust capital of the world”. Again, why?

        • lprent

          And almost all of that happened between the budget at the start of the year, and the PREFU before the election. However there was also virtually no government debt.

          So with all of that sitting in prospect, any prudent government would have realized that there was a going to be rising unemployment and reduced revenues. So why did the Key government not only push through expensive modified tax cuts, but also announced further tax cuts that they had to later cancel?

          So now we have rapidly rising government debt because of an enormous hole between expenditure and revenue, largely from a reduced tax take and increased welfare. We also have a government that is restricted on cutting the major costs in benefits because that is likely to cause a recessionary spiral. They are kind of jammed because of their tax cuts. Eventually they will have to reverse them.

          • RedLogix

            So why did the Key government not only push through expensive modified tax cuts, but also announced further tax cuts that they had to later cancel?

            Just in case no-one else has mentioned it … apparently tax cuts are no longer a priority.

            But missing will be plans for wide-scale tax cuts – after placing tax cuts at the forefront of his new Government’s plans three years ago, and implementing some tax cuts during National’s first term, Mr Key said further reductions were no longer affordable.

            Nor apparently was the public sector all that ‘bloated’ either:

            In 2000, just after Labour got into office, there were about 28,000 state employees and that number peaked at 45,000.

            Under National it had only dropped back to 44,000, despite several billion dollars in savings made across the board.

            Funny how the real work of having to run government tends to tone down the rhetoric and ideology a bit.

  2. Uturn 2

    We are hairless chimps when we choose self interest and reactive fear based thinking over the hard effort of conscious decisions.

    First lets get something straight. There are the “elite” who are sitting at the top of an economic system. They are amassing rather than climbing and aspiring. They are concerned with maintaining that system. You could call them emperors, empire builders or empirialists.

    Then there are aspiring people in the upper middle class down. They are climbing and the thing that links them strongly to the empirialism of the elite is they want to be elite in some way. They are a larger group than the elites, and have greater potential (sadly, usually destructive) power.

    The problem is not that people genrally can’t think ahead, emperialism proves we do – if in a destructive way – it’s that we struggle to think ahead constructively; for fear, for comfort, for lack of imagination, for ignorance. Lots of ideas sound fantastically good, as a way of life for everyone, before you start to inspect their basis.

    Chimps, and some other creatures of limited offspring, possess the intellect to consider evolutionary altruism: they do what’s best for the herd, to sustain the herd. How they sustain the herd is not important. Their animal brains cannot go that far. Rape, murder, bullying, barbaric punishments – from a human perspective – are all valid ways of supporting and ensuring the continuation of the herd. It is also true that a certain style of charity, child support, welfare and environmenntal restraint exists. But these things are not moral choices, they are similar to a utilitarian outlook – one of the herd is only worth something in it’s potential ability to improve the chances of the herd’s survival.

    Some humans think this is the only option we have, too. But clearly we don’t, our brains can form concepts, question established patterns and experiment freely. The so-called elite do not control the power of the larger group of aspirant people. All they need do is utter a few slogans of growth and the people snap to attention – because the people want to believe the fairytale. They provide the energy to the ideas, not the elites. The elites are just using them to build empires. It’s been going on so long, if the elites said the game was over, that there is no more growth, the aspirant people still wouldn’t believe it and would push the elite aside to build their own elite. Like the chimps, they’ll do whatever is necessary to keep the herd alive. But unlike the chimps, they cannot truthfully say there was no choice and the chimps, lacking the firepower, can only wipe their own species out.

    When Joe Average places his parents legacy with an investment firm, he may think he is Joe Average, digging holes for a living, but he has becomes Aspirant Joe. He sustains a corrupted system and justifies it any way he needs to, for the good of the herd. The money he was given was gained by sustaining the same corrupted system, over a lifetime. Until Aspirant Joe figures that out that the problems he wants to fix – like Global Warming or poverty – are sustained by acts of industrialisation – like investing with big business – he’s part of the destructive cycle. Aspirant Joe, when he places his money, doesn’t think how it comes back as more. He just takes the cash and thinks he was prudent. But his whole existence is based on destructive acts, regardless of the peaceful nature of his life. Aspirant Joe needs to learn to think ahead constructively, if he wants his herd to remain in his little corner of the forest, called the “bio-sphere”.

    • Brett 2.1

      Ain’t never going to happen.
      You try to take that away from Aspirant Joe and he will tear you a new one and fair enough too.

      • Bored 2.1.1

        You are right Brett, but he wont tear hard when he is starving, wondering where the dole went and at the inability to get a doctor for his dying child. Aspiring till the moment he expires. Sad commentary really on the human condition.

        • Colonial Viper

          Aspirant “Top 10%” Joe is going to learn the true realities of capitalist life as the top 0.1% in society steals everything he has.

  3. vto 3

    “So why is it so easy to save the banks and so hard to save biosphere? ”

    Because if the banks fail then the current politicians in power will get thrown out of office, and if the biosphere fails no current politicians in power will get thrown out of office.


  4. In Vino Veritas 4

    “So why is it so easy to save the banks and so hard to save biosphere? ”

    Because the science the climate change proponents would have us rely on may not be reliable. Theres and old saying “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

    I would also point out that of the vast sum’s provided by the Federal Reserve to banks, large sums have been paid back already, with interest. So perhaps Monbiot should look at updated figures that show exposure, not gross amounts lent.

    • Macro 4.1

      “Because the science the climate change proponents would have us rely on may not be reliable”
      So you consider that quantum physics is a load of old crock?? You have an alternative physics – could be worth a Noble Prize.
      And as for the Climate Science projections – at what point after 95% certainty would you consider the conclusions “reliable”.
      You should also bear in mind that in the 5 years since the last IPCC report in 2007 the science is even certain, and the projections of that report are proving to be highly conservative. The most recent observations and data sets are showing the Earth to be heating far more rapidly than even considered in 2007.

    • vto 4.2

      “I would also point out that of the vast sum’s provided by the Federal Reserve to banks, large sums have been paid back already, with interest”

      This is supposed to be relevant how? The vast sums are just electronic money printed at the time under the guise of the world’s biggest ponzi scheme. In addition, how would you know it has been repaid? And with what? Do you trust this giant scamming cartel? You sound suckered in.

    • fmacskasy 4.3

      Is NASA part of the “unreliable science”? Are their satellites beaming back “unreliable data”?

      Perhaps plate tectonics and continental drift is “unreliable science” as well…?

      And may e doesn’t equal mc2!

    • McFlock 4.4

      So economic predictions (i.e. if you don’t bail out the banks a collapse many times worse will happe) are more reliable than climate predictions? Got any evidence to support that?
      thought not.

  5. hoom 5

    Rapa Nui was our test environment, we’re eagerly replicating the response to signs of problems & heading to the same outcome on the global scale.

  6. David H 6

    Maybe if we are lucky, the whole rotten stinking mess will crash and burn, and the lazy bankers will have to scrabble to feed themselves, then see what their millions are worth.

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      Uh, in terms of “crashing and burning” that’s been in progress for the last 4 years…and the next four are going to be the decidedly rough ones.

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