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Marketplace Morning Report

Commentary: Disaster refief

Marketplace Staff Sep 13, 2007
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Kai Ryssdal: Hurricane Humberto bit into South Texas and Louisiana last night with rain and 80-mile-an-hour winds. The first hurricane to hit us in two years didn’t approach anything near Katrina, and petered into a tropical storm by mid-morning. But hurricane season doesn’t end until November 30. Commentator Andrew Marcellus says, over time, indifference to those who live in harm’s way could become something much worse.

Andrew Marcellus: The basic economics of risk in hurricane zones is crystal clear. The only people who should live in killer storm zones are those who can afford very expensive insurance and storm-proof housing. But what about the millions of poor and working people who can’t afford either but are essential to coastal economies?

We could provide them with subsidies so that they can afford insurance. But we don’t have to. Instead, we can safely gamble that sheer economic necessity will bully our soldiers, police, construction workers, and day-care providers into accepting their exposure to Mother Nature. But do we really want to bet that we can tear up the social contract and maintain social order?

Business reality demands it. It’s cheaper for society to rescue disaster survivors after the fact than protect them from Nature’s nastiness. Social unrest? Yes, we’ll have that, but not riots or radical politics. These people are simply powerless at work and in politics.

Profound alienation? Sure. We’ll have legions of migrants as climate change proceeds. Continually displaced populations will commit more crimes. Prisons will be the warehouses for these climate migrants.

Impossible? No. Think Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, Sao Paulo, Cairo.

There, elites maintain enough distance between themselves and everybody else that they don’t have to give a darn about the majority living at the mercy of the weather.

I have no idea what will happen in an urban society in an advanced capitalist country with a large, floating population continually displaced by climate risk. But neither does anyone else. It’s another step in globalization where the U.S. begins to join the “third world.”

And that’s why this is a bad, bad bet.

Ryssdal: Economist Marcellus Andrews lives in New York City.

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