Midwest floods & crumbling levees, Why capitalism can’t deal with global warming

FIST, NYC chapter

A series of flooding, storms and tornadoes throughout the Midwest has once again called attention to the crumbling nature of U.S. public infrastructure and the increasing crisis of global warming.

At least 15 deaths in the Midwest and elsewhere have been attributed to the recent weather that has hit the region. People have been displaced from their homes in the thousands in Indiana and the tens of thousands in Iowa. Power outages have occurred in Michigan, Ohio and Iowa, while in some areas, people have been required to limit their water usage to drinking only.

Reminiscent of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, levees broke throughout the region. Two levees broke on June 14 near Keithsburg, Ill., near the Mississippi River, and emergency workers and residents have been fervently trying to reinforce nearly 30 levees along that river before they too break. Another levee broke along the Iowa River, flooding the community of Oakville, Iowa. And in Wisconsin, an embankment along a human-made lake broke, washing out a highway and five homes.

A levee in Des Moines, Iowa, burst on June 14, flooding part of the city’s northeast side. According to Des Moines Public Works Director Bill Stowe, the city had been seeking federal approval to reconstruct that levee, which was built in the 1950s. (Washington Post online, June 14)

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, gave the U.S. an overall failing grade of D, with grades of D+ or less in the categories of aviation, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, roads, schools, transit and wastewater. Their Web site, updated for 2008, states, “Establishing a long-term development and maintenance plan must become a national priority.” (www.asce.org)

Happening during an overall economic crisis, the poor will be bearing the brunt of this disaster—not only in the Midwest, but everywhere. The price of corn, a staple food, jumped to a record $7 a bushel after the floods destroyed crops in the Midwest.

In Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver has requested federal disaster status for 83 of the 99 counties there, so that the Federal Emergency Management Administration can provide food, water and other resources and individuals can request individual assistance. Whether or not FEMA will neglect the people of these Midwest states—as it did the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—remains to be seen.

Global warming a reality, not a threat

The recent surge in natural disasters such as tornadoes and other extreme weather events speaks to the fact that global warming is increasing their threat and intensity.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the National Weather Service reported on June 12 that the Cedar River was expected to reach a record crest a staggering 12 feet higher than the previous record, which was set more than 150 years ago in 1851. Jeff Zogg, a hydrologist for the Weather Service in Davenport, Iowa, told the New York Times, “Usually if you break a record, you only do it by an inch or two.” (June 13)

At the same time that flooding was occurring in the Midwest, the East Coast was experiencing a rash of heat waves from North Carolina to New Hampshire, with record temperatures in New York. According to the National Weather Service, heat is the primary weather-related killer, accounting for 1,500 deaths in the U.S. annually. (New York Times, June 10)

The World Health Organization made climate change the theme of World Health Day on April 7. A statement by WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan asserts: “Climate change endangers health in fundamental ways. … The effects of extreme weather events—more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves—will be abrupt and acutely felt. Both trends can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter, and freedom from disease. … In short, climate change can affect problems that are already huge, largely concentrated in the developing world, and difficult to combat.”

The utter lack of planning or accountability for human needs under capitalism has created both an environmental crisis that will lead to even more natural disasters and an infrastructure that is unable to cope with them. The prospects are ominous for people in the U.S. and throughout the world.

However, there is an alternative. The planning and response to natural disasters in some socialist countries show a way forward.

In Cuba—which according to the Global Footprint Network is the only country that has built its infrastructure and raised educational and health levels without adversely impacting the environment—hurricanes are frequent, yet lives are seldom lost. In China, the entire government has responded with urgency and resources for earthquake survivors.

These two examples show just a glimpse of how socialism, based on people’s needs and not profit, can better handle the damage to the environment and also turn it around.

E-mail: ldowell@workers.org

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