The End of Stationarity

Winners and losers in the time of climate change

The End of Stationarity: Searching for the New Normal in the Age of Carbon Shock. By Mark Schapiro. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2016. 240 pp.

In August, a storm system dumped nearly two feet of rain to the coast of Louisiana in half a day. Such a large amount of rain delivered in a short amount of time devastated the state, killing thirteen people, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of others, and leaving a cleanup bill likely to be in the billions of dollars. The flooding raised a host of challenging questions about the politics and economics of living in a floodplain. Should communities in such areas be relocated for their own good? How should flood insurance be funded? How do we get ready for future disasters, especially if we believe climate change will make them more frequent and severe?

The social consequences of climate change like the disruption from the Louisiana flooding lies at the heart of environmental journalist Mark Schapiro’s The End of Stationarity. Stationarity, as Schapiro notes, is a scientific term for the “realm of predictable fluctuation” within a data set. Normally, mean temperature or precipitation may vary from year to year, but it is always within a narrow bandwidth. Climate change, according to the best scientific evidence, promises to upend that trend. In other words, what humans have become used to in terms of weather is changing radically. As Schapiro’s tour d’horizon makes clear, societies across the globe are experiencing radical disjuncture in the normal range of experienced weather conditions. For some places, hot summers are getting significantly hotter. For others, seasonal rainfall patterns are becoming more erratic, with some wet seasons starting later and delivering less precipitation. The deserts in many regions are advancing into places hitherto temperate. The economic consequences of such shifts threaten livelihoods and will produce unintended consequences for social and political stability.

As we have started to understand what the end of stationarity means for how we exist on this planet, we are coming to terms with how the various sectors of the globalized economy need to be readjusted to avoid catastrophe. Schapiro does an admirable job taking his readers around the world: farmers in California worried about the declining availability of water; police in Brazil fighting illegal deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest; bureaucrats in Washington, DC, and Brussels fighting over how to measure and allocate responsibility for emissions from international air travel; and the titans of Wall Street calculating how climate change affects the future profitability of the richest and most powerful companies in the world.

Running throughout these vignettes is the concept of triage, which Schapiro refers to in the context of who gets priority over California’s dwindling water supply, but it is applicable to the complex political and economic decisions needed to adapt to a climate-challenged world. In order to deal effectively with climate change, politicians and the publics they serve will have to become very good at understanding how to deal with winners and losers from decisions taken in the context of fighting climate change. In a region with dwindling freshwater supplies, which end-user gets priority access: farmers, the public works department of a large city, or electricity providers? Underscoring these decisions is the fact that this process will have to be undertaken year in, year out, as baseline conditions shift constantly and in an unpredictable manner.

Also recurring through the course of the book is a refrain from analysts in the climate community about the need for a price on carbon, so that the full cost of greenhouse gas emissions on the atmosphere is properly carried by those emitting it. The concept of a direct carbon tax has been an anathema in the mainstream of U.S. political opinion for a long time; a previous effort to build a cap-and-trade program never made it out of Congress in 2009. Though the official platform of the Democratic Party talks about pricing carbon, the party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, does not plan to put carbon pricing at the heart of her climate change plans. Canada, by contrast, is embracing the idea which British Columbia, one of its provinces, has had in place since 2013. Other jurisdictions, like California and certain areas in China, have adopted cap-and-trade programs. Schapiro is sympathetic to the economic logic of carbon pricing, as it would provide the incentives from what would otherwise be expensive decisions about pursuing low-carbon energy sources. Less realized in the book is how to overcome the objections to the practicality and limitations of a carbon tax, especially as the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China, are moving toward different regulatory regimes.

These are important considerations, as integrating carbon pricing globally would also deal with the vexing question of how to deal with the pollution from economic activity that crosses international borders. Schapiro devotes a chapter to a dispute between the European Union and the United States over whether U.S. airlines flying into European airports had to purchase allowances for emissions from their planes. Other examples crop up in the book. Much of the reason that growth in greenhouse gas emissions has slowed in the United States and the European Union is that a lot of industrial capacity has been outsourced to Asia. The consequence of that is that the emissions from producing millions of iPhones are counted against China, even though those iPhones are ultimately consumed in the United States. In an ideal policy world, a coordinated carbon tax regime would make cross-border adjustments to the prices of imported goods so that those emissions are priced appropriately. The status quo, by contrast, gives countries too much credit for having their highest-polluting industries move to a different country. As Schapiro concludes, “In a world without a single carbon price, the emissions outsourcing ladder is an endless one.”

The planet is in the midst of a wide-ranging transition from an era of generating wealth on a foundation of fossil fuels to a new one where carbon is pushed to the wayside. It is a process, Schapiro writes, in which longstanding assumptions are “replaced, transformed, turned around.” How quickly and smoothly that transition occurs is up to us, and the decisions, personal and political, we make. The End of Stationarity sets a comprehensive tableau for what has been working, what has not been working, and the work that remains to be done.

Neil Bhatiya is a former fellow at the Century Foundation. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.