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The Biggest Short

March 4, 2012 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments

We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others…. In our own species, deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin.  If by deception we mean only consciously propagated deception – outright lies – then we miss the much larger category of unconscious deception, including self-deception.  On the other hand, if we look at self-deception and fail to see its roots in deceiving others, we miss its major function.  We may be tempted to rationalize self-deception as being defensive in purpose when actually it is usually offensive.”  Robert Trivers [1].

Mark you this, Bassanio,

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart:

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

William Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 3, The Merchant of Venice.

The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) was formed in 1989 by many of the world’s top multinational corporations including Ford, General Motors, ExxonMobil, Dupont, British Petroleum, Shell Oil, DaimlerChrysler, and Texaco for the purpose of misinforming the public about global warming [2].  In 1995 the board commissioned their own experts, employees of oil companies, to write a technical report on global warming.  The naïve might imagine that this was an honest attempt to discover the truth.   But the executives of these corporations were already self-informed by their ideology, their “values” and especially their remarkable profits that global warming cannot be happening.  They simply needed to discover arguments to use to attack the science and subsequently the scientists.  The GCC technical committee report, submitted to the GCC board by Gregory Dana (tech VP) [3] on January 18, 1996, concluded instead:

The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied.”

These conclusions were accurate then and are even more robust today.  The point being that from January 1996 the fossil fuels industry knew that anthropogenic global warming was real having been unambiguously informed by their technical experts.  From 1996 forward the corporations, their officers, all of the politicians they’ve corrupted, the few scientists they’ve bought and the think tanks they have funded have not simply been deceiving us and themselves but they’ve been lying.

An observation worth making is that politicians trumpet their “values” when they don’t have anything of value to offer such as data, analysis, knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, or common sense.  In the rich field of political hucksters Rick Santorum stands out.  On global warming, Republican presidential candidate Santorum opines [4]:

When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate — this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government.”

Bible-toting Santorum explained at a campaign rally recently that “we were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth…. We should not let the vagaries of nature destroy what we have helped create.” He also said that environmentalism is “a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth.”

Picture yourself sharing a space ship with Santorum on your way to Mars and he starts trashing the machinery that is keeping both of you alive.  “Rick, wait, what the heck are you doing?”  You scream as you try to stop him in his madness and he replies “You dare elevate the importance of this space ship over creatures of God?”

What the Bible says is:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” (Leviticus 25:23-24)

You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell.” (Numbers 35:33-34)

I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” (Jeremiah 2:7)

…if you defile the land, it will vomit you out ...” (Leviticus 18:26, 28)

I’m not quoting the Bible to challenge Santorum to dueling Bible quotes for even the devil can cite scripture.  I’m not citing the Bible as an authority on global warming, since it was written thousands of years before man started burning fossil fuels with abandon.  The Bible is not the go to book for solutions to our myriad self-inflicted environmental problems though its advice on the matter seems prescient.  The reason I’m quoting the Bible is because I cannot resist ridiculing such a specious Tartuffe and I can’t resist writing:  “Rick, if you value the Bible so much why don’t you read it?”

This brings me to the moral of “The Big Short” written by consummate story teller Michael Lewis [5].  As Lewis describes it Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms created an opaque and lucrative market for Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations and other often synthetic derivatives based on home mortgages and other assets.  Greed led a small group of people, bankers, mortgage brokers, analysts, and bond raters to place the world economy at risk with behavior which if not illegal should have been.  These people represented less than 0.5 percent of the population at most, for arguments sake. The big short was a bet that Americans were going to default on their liar loans, adjustable rate mortgages, interest only mortgages, and other subprime housing debt and that what Wall Street firms had created was a house of cards.  A few people, for arguments sake less than 0.5 percent of the population, paying attention to the Case-Shiller housing index and total credit market debt, the Gini Index and other economic data, grasped that the US housing market was a bubble economy about to burst, a few of the cleverest of these took out insurance against default without actually owning the mortgages while AIG and others, among the first 0.5% group, sold this insurance and booked the premiums as easy profits.  The big financial institutions which created the market couldn’t get enough of the action and gave money away in consumer loans inflating real estate prices in the process.  When the party ended, Vice President Cheney insisted that no one anticipated the looming U.S. financial crisis [6]. “I don’t think anybody saw it coming.”  Actually, it was a bloody freight train.

The middle 99 percent bought into the charade to varying degrees.  A few borrowed money at ridiculously low teaser rates thinking they were going to flip the property to some greater fool before the anvil fell on their heads, a few stayed out of the over-heated market but still believed their own house had actually gone up in value.  Many of these refinanced and took these paper gains out of their properties and used the money to buy SUVs and take expensive vacations neither of which they needed.  When these mortgages went into default and it came time to pay up, the United States, meaning taxpayers, became the lender of last resort bailing out AIG and the rest of the too-big-to fail banks.  We were screwed of course, but don’t think we didn’t deserve that. We became hooked on cheep credit and the over consumption it enabled.  Even though I count myself in the second 0.5%, paying off my mortgage, investing in gold, shorting the financial sector and selling as much of my investment property as I could near the top, I’m still the owner of my share of the federal bailout debt just like everybody else.  I was powerless to stop the fools, charlatans and liars.

I cautioned friends not to take out college loans; refinance but only at a fixed rate and don’t take out more from the equity; don’t buy a house but wait until the market collapses; don’t buy things on credit which you don’t absolutely need; if you have to borrow money to buy a car or take a vacation, you cannot afford it; go to a community college for a couple of years instead of borrowing to go to a private school; don’t take equity out of your house; buy a home when interest rates are high and prices are low not the other way around.

We elected politicians from President Reagan on down who told us that the government was the problem and corporations did not need to be regulated.  We brought into the Milton Friedman/Ayn Rand/Alan Greenspan school of unfettered private enterprise and free market capitalism.  We did not pay attention.  We were sold on borrowing against the future or as Vice President Cheney unambiguously put it “Deficits don’t matter.”  Until they do.

Anthropogenic global warming is an analogous situation to the failed housing and credit markets.  A small number of corporations and people are getting fabulously wealthy keeping the rest of us hooked on a consumptive lifestyle that we cannot afford, that cannot last and that requires us to borrow from the future what we cannot pay back.  I’d estimate that the liars, charlatans and cranks making money denying global warming is less than 0.5 percent of the population.  Santorum, part of this group, gets paid by the fossil fuels industry and other corporate sponsors in the form of campaign contributions and consulting fees when he is out of office to peddle their big lie; most specifically that global warming isn’t happening, pollution is a good thing and that corporations don’t need to be regulated.  He is selling insurance to the American people that we will not default on the enormous debt we are running up against the future because God will not let that happen and Santorum hopes to get paid for that too in the form of votes.  He is taking advantage of the greed of America’s extremely wealthy and the greed and fear of the American people.  He appeals to our lizard brains.  But then that’s the part of our brains that told us deficits don’t matter.

For the rest of the analogy, I’m guessing that only 0.5 percent of the population realizes that anthropogenic global warming is existential.  Even though polling data suggest that between 50 and 70 percent of the population subscribes at some level, I don’t know how many of these understand the science.  How many have heard of the End Permian, the LGM, the PETM, or could define Earth Climate Sensitivity?  How many people know how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere and how many can relate that to the levels during the Eemian or the mid-Pliocene?  How many people are angry?

Just so you understand the problem from my perspective, trying to get people to understand the housing bubble back in 2004 when a soft landing was possible was frustrating but the only thing at risk was our economy.  Meaningful reforms require progressive taxation on the extremely wealthy and very effective regulation of corporate misbehavior.  In order to fix the economy I would have had to convince at least 70 percent of the population and perhaps even more given the amount of money the 0.5 percent has amassed.  Even after the crash and even after having been proved correct, meaningful reform has not happened.  Anthropogenic global warming is a much harder problem.  We have to convince at least 70% of the population and they have to be committed.  They cannot be foul weather climate hawks during storms and droughts. And fair weather deniers  They cannot flinch when you point out that global warming deniers are lying.  These 70 percent have to get angry.  They have to boycott corporations which fund global warming denial.

I’ve no doubt that Santorum believes his own narrative at the conscious level.  The best con artists usually do [1].  He assures us that God has told him global warming isn’t happening, we are not responsible and anyway it will be a good thing when it does happen and in any event we do not have to worry because after we’ve trashed the future God will be the lender of last resort.  God will bail us out.  Except He will not.  Welcome to Santorum’s Sodom and Gomorra.

Homo sapiens only exist because of biosphere services ( in fact photosynthetic cyanobacteria and single celled algae are responsible for the atmosphere’s oxygen [7]) and with the cooperation of the rest of the biosphere and when we screw that up, we may be vomited out much as Leviticus foretells.  Deniers will call this statement alarmist, but what is alarming is Santorum receiving the number of votes that he is.

My analogy isn’t perfect.  The difference between the recent economic crises and the on-going environmental crises is that you could have shorted the mortgage market, AIG and the financial institutions and come out ahead; you cannot effectively short the Earth.  You and I cannot protect ourselves from the folly of others.  When we’ve sufficiently trashed our only planet the game is up.

If you want to read about the earth system, the earth’s climate and Homo sapiens big gamble on the future I’d recommend The Earth System [8] for starters.  If you want to comprehend Santorum, Inhofe, Perry, Bachman, Cuccinelli and the rest of our conservative politicians, read the Bible.

“And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.” Bible New Testament, Peter 2:1-3

“And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” Bible New Testament, Luke 12:15.

[1] Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools, 2011

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Climate_Coalition

[3] The report was leaked to the N. Y. Times in 2009, http://www.sourcewatch.org/images/8/82/GCC_Primer_Draft.pdf

[4] http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2012/02/23/430356/top-biblical-verses-why-rick-santorum-is-out-of-step-with-christianity-on-environmental-issues/

[5] Michael Lewis, The Big Short, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

[6] http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/01/09/34620/cheney-911-economy/

[7] Marine phytoplankton are responsible for processing 45-50 billion tonnes of inorganic carbon each year and land plants process about 52 billion tonnes, but marine phytoplankton have been doing this for the last 2.7 billion years and are responsible for the initial buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere.  Land plants came along only since the Ordovician about 488 million years ago.

[8] I have several good text books on climate physics and related topics.  I recommend starting with Lee Kump, James Kasting and Robert Crane, “The Earth System, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.  Ray Pierrehumbert’s Principles of Planetary Climate, Cambridge, 2010 is also very good as is Ray Bradley, Paleoclimatology, Elsevier, 1999 but the best summary is still the IPCC report from 2007, though it is a bit too optimistic judging by the most recent science.


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