October 25, 2017

Oh My God, Scott; Watch Out!



In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma’s devastation in Florida, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said it was not the time to discuss the cause and effect of the storm.

Now it is time. We are at the same point with respect to climate change as I was, in the early afternoon on December 6, 2014, when my wife Mary exclaimed “Oh My God, Bob; Watch Out!”

It was the tone of her voice, and the cadence, that said to me – stop whatever it is you are thinking about, and pay attention. I did, and it saved our lives.

I focused on a large truck about a quarter of a mile down the road coming toward us. It was an 18-wheeler, and it was bouncing in a way that clearly indicated it was in serious trouble. Moreover, I saw flame coming out of the wheel-well of the passenger side.

Mary, who had noticed the truck a moment earlier, realized something that I had not yet become aware of, that although the truck was pointed straight down the highway, it was also moving sideways toward us.

The emotionally charged next five seconds are burned into my memory as if it were a video that I’ve watched over and over. I remember immediately slamming on the brakes.   

As I braked I also looked back to see if there were any cars to my right. I had already pictured a debris field that, despite the concrete barrier between us, spilled over onto our side of the divided freeway.  That picture implied to me that I needed to slow down and begin moving to the right.

But I had no idea what was coming.

What I didn’t know was that there had already been a fatal accident.  An out of control Audi had been crushed, moments earlier, by this truck, which was hauling a tanker filled with 9000 gallons of gasoline.  The truck had already bounced off the Audi, crossed from the local into the express lanes, and was now a second or two from hitting the concrete barrier. I hadn’t realized it yet, but that truck was now literally a bomb with a lit fuse, hurtling straight at us.   

As I slowed down and moved to the right we watched in horror as the truck rolled right up and over the concrete barrier. The tanker remained on the far side, but the cab slammed down right in front of us, immediately burst into flames, and sent debris scattering in front of us.   

Luckily I had just enough time to slow down. I couldn’t have stopped, but was able, even in pouring rain, to move in a controlled path to the right and to pass by safely despite the debris.

What I remember most vividly was the intense heat through the rain and the glass as we passed by within inches of the front of the cab.  We slowly came to a stop and realized that we were the only car to pass by. We looked back and saw the truck already engulfed in flames hundreds of feet high.   

There was nothing we could do.  Those behind us in all 8 lanes got stopped by the inferno and were held up for the next seven hours as equipment from Newark airport was eventually brought in to put out the flame.

Although for us the danger was over in a few seconds, it took hours to calm down. We both knew we had come within a fraction of a second of an unimaginable death.

Of course not everyone would draw the same lessons from this experience as I have, but given my background as the head of risk management for Goldman Sachs the message is very clear: the reason we survived was because of Mary’s vigilance and my quick response to her warning.

And today science is similarly warning all of us that the global economy, led by the United States, is dangerously filling the earth’s atmosphere, a reservoir with limited capacity, with greenhouse gases.

Frighteningly, science can only guess with great uncertainty about what the safe capacity is, and yet society continues to waste whatever capacity is left.  No one knows how much time is left to act in order to avoid a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, there is an effective brake, a carbon tax.

Just as I was obliviously driving along before Mary exclaimed, “Watch Out!” the global economy is pushing forward with its foot squarely on the accelerator:  government incentives to produce and consume fossil fuels globally dwarf the meager incentives that some venues have created to reduce emissions.

This insane set of incentives is a bug in the global economy’s governance system.  The tax codes created by governments don’t create appropriate incentives to reduce emissions. But like any bug, this one can be fixed immediately by changing the code.

Slamming on the brake, in this context, means changing the tax code to add an incentive to reduce emissions, i.e. implementing a carbon tax.

So when Scott Pruitt ignores one monster hurricane after another and says now is not the time to talk about climate change, I say, “Oh My God, Scott; Watch Out!”  And please pay attention to the tone of my voice!