Who Will Protect the Commons?

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 6-2-14

By Gay Nicholson

Farmers Insurance Inc. recently sued over 200 Chicago-area local governments for their failure to prepare for the increased risks of climate change, after a storm in April 2013 caused widespread damage from stormwater and sewage overflow. Arguing that the municipalities had acknowledged the risks in their climate action planning but had failed to take reasonable action to improve their drainage systems, the company seeks to transfer the costs of the insurance claims to local taxpayers.

We can expect more of this type of lawsuit. Taxpayers and their elected representatives will face spiraling costs in the coming years as they work to harden their infrastructure against climate impacts, pay for damage to existing infrastructure, assist community members harmed by climate-related disruption, and defend themselves against claims of negligence.

But even as taxes continue rising to pay for the many facets of climate change, we find our governments increasingly “captured” by interests connected to the fossil fuel economy.   Who will protect the interests of the people? Where is the leverage to make change?

Sustainable Tompkins spring salon series on ‘The Climate, the Market, and the Commons’ will continue on June 5 and June 19 at 7 pm at the Sustainability Center, 111 N. Albany. The first salons addressed the questions of “Why are we stuck in climate denial?” and “Can business and technology save us?” and attracted large audiences for lively discussions.

Our topic on June 5 is “Will Government Intervene?” Our guest speakers will be Mayor Svante Myrick, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, and Professor Tony Ingraffea. We’ll begin the salon by asking them to describe policy actions that can be taken now at the local, state, and federal level that are most likely to help us cope with climate change.

In his introduction to Governing for Sustainability, David Orr describes how our public capacity to solve public problems has diminished considerably since the Reagan/Thatcher era, with the power of democratic governments eroding sharply, along with their ability “to foresee, plan, and act – which is to say, govern.” Francis Moore Lappe notes that since the 1980s, too many of us have absorbed “the notion that government itself – not the forces making it less and less accountable to us – is the problem.” Instead we have been indoctrinated to value individual rights far above the public good. The result has been an ever-accelerating increase in wealth and power accorded to a small minority of individuals.

Thus far, for the most part, national governments have failed to intervene to protect the public interest with respect to climate change. Around the world, most of the action on climate is taking place at the local level, where citizens can make their concerns heard, politicians must face their public, and the reality of living with vulnerable populations and inadequate infrastructure is more visible. But even so, preparation is slow due to lack of interest, expertise, and funding.

How can we make those who profit from exacerbating the climate problem pay for the damage? How do we overcome the ideology that stands against the idea of the public good?

How can government intervene to reform our economy so that it internalizes its full costs and more fairly distributes benefits and risks between and within generations?

We’ll be exploring these questions and more in the June 5 salon. Our objective is not to agree upon specific answers to the questions, but to bring into view possible solutions to the complex problems we face – and to become more confident about talking with others about climate change and working together to safeguard our common future.

(Previous salons are available for viewing from links on the Sustainable Tompkins website along with details about the other salon topics and guest speakers.)

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Tompkins.


If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles