The Wrong Financial Crisis: Hoisted from the Archives (October 2008)

Tweed Jackets and Natural Disasters: No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate

Harris tweed Tweed cloth Wikipedia

No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: For Whom the Climate Bell Tolls: As I began my first lecture this fall here at the University of California at Berkeley, I immediately realized that I was too hot: I desperately wanted to take off my professorial tweed jacket.

A tweed jacket is, in many ways, a wonderful albeit peculiar costume. For one thing, it is the closest thing you can get to Gore-Tex if all you have for raw material is a sheep. Thus it is perfect for a cloudy climate with frequent fog and drizzle. For another, it is surprisingly warming—wet or dry—for its weight. Hence in the world as it was before central heating, it—and the rest of what we today think of male formal and semi-formal attire—were effective and comfortable garb in the Oxfords and Cambridges, in the Edinburghs and Londons, in the Bristols and Norwiches where they were originally devised.

Blame the British Empire for the spread of these garments around the globe.

That spread was a decidedly mixed blessing. Indeed, these garments have long been cursed by those living closer to the equator, or further from the clouds and fog, or in regions of greater temperature variation than the island of Great Britain. And with the coming of central heating these garments became uncomfortable indoors, at least for those of us who do not sit sessie at desks, in most of even those parts of the world where they were comfortable outdoors—save for those Global North offices and shopping malls where they would really crank up the air conditioning to make jacket-and-tie or suit-and-tie feel comfortable.

There did, however, remain a few places in the world where tweed jackets and their ilk remained comfortable wear: Scotland, those places of England where it was considered gauche to actually use your central heating—and San Francisco Bay north of Silicon Valley, including the University of California's home here at Berkeley on the east side of San Francisco Bay. I will admit that the idea that professorial-style wear was actually comfortable here was a reason—a small reason—to locate in Berkeley after three years in Washington learning how many pounds of sweat a wool suit can absorb and hold.

But over the past twenty years I have found professorial garb becoming increasing uncomfortable here on the east side of San Francisco Bay. And these days the climate of Berkeley feels to me like the climate of Santa Barbara 200 miles to the south felt back in the days when I was young. Hence now, increasingly, we lecture wearing the short shirt sleeve costume that we saw people in Greater Los Angeles—at CalTech and the Jet Propulsion Lab—wearing half a century ago.

In the United States—for the entire Global North, in fact—global warming is probably not going to be a huge problem over the next century. It essentially means that the climate will march about 3 miles north each year. Probably. There are possible disaster scenarios—disappearance of snowpacks, rapid desertification, wheat belt turns into a corn belt, corn belt turns into rangeland, rangeland turns into desert, and so forth. Dealing with such would be inconvenient. Dealing with such would be expensive. But dealing wiht such would be doable.

But elsewhere objects that are much worse than inconvenient are much closer in the mirror of the future than they appear to many. We still have two billion who are or whose livelihoods depend on the near-subsistence farmers living in the six great river valleys of Asia, from the Yellow all the way around to the Indus. These farmers do not have a lot of money or non-farming skills. They would have a very hard time moving elsewhere and making a living other than as farmers in the six great valleys of river valleys of Asia—the six that have supported most of human civilization for the past five thousand years. Those rivers rely on there being enough snow on the high plateaus of Asia and that snow melting at the right time in the right volume, neither too little nor too much when the crops need them. We have another billion who depend on the monsoon showing up at the right time in the right place in the right volume. Plus there is the fact that the pattern of typhoons in the Bay of Bengal will change as global warming proceeds: they will grow stronger or weaker as the sea level starts to rise. If they grow stronger, and start roaring north with a storm surge toward the 250, million people living essentially at sea level in the greater Ganges Delta...

We as a globe are not prepared for that. The mainland United States was not prepared for Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy in New York, or Harvey in Houston. Puerto Rico was not prepared for Maria. The four most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history have all occurred in the past fifteen years—and, no, they were not the most damaging because of administrative incompetence or the increased density of coastal settlement. Yet those natural disasters were merely small pinpricks compared to the natural disaster risks we are now running.

Bells. Tolling. John Donne. No man—no ethnic group—no country—is an island.