Ecocentric

Why the Debt Crisis Has Trumped the Climate Crisis—at Least in D.C.

Washington media and politicians are certain that something must be done—and soon—about the debt crisis. But climate change rarely gets that kind of traction. Why it matters which crisis we choose

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Erskine Bowles, left, and Alan Simpson at the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hearings

To a certain group of Americans, the United States—neigh, the world—faces an existential crisis, one that threatens the prosperity and even stability of the future. This problem is so big and so frightening that solving it must be the government’s singular priority. It doesn’t matter that the very drastic steps needed to address the issue are likely to cause palpable economic pain in the short term—pain likely to be borne by the poorest and most vulnerable among us. It doesn’t matter that many experts doubt how serious this subject is, and worry that the solution could cause more trouble than the problem itself. Simply by expressing doubt, those dissenters prove themselves to be fundamentally unserious extremists—and they must be shouted down. There’s no time to waste with debate. Something must be done!

If you read the newspaper or watch the cable shows, you know the problem I’m talking about. It’s the metastasizing federal debt, and to a significant slice of elite Washington—and most of the Republican party—reducing that debt chiefly through drastic spending cuts trumps every other problem facing the country today. That fear is the reason why the political parties find themselves unable to head off the looming budget sequestration, that series of automatic hatchet cuts to government spending amounting to $1.2 trillion over 10 years. It’s the reason why our government seems to be lurching from one fiscal crisis to another. But to debt hardliners, there can be no negotiation—and dissenters like the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman must be defeated. It’s telling that deficit scolds have throwing around the term “debt deniers” to describe their apostate opponents—there’s even an @debtdeniers Twitter account—as if debt skeptics are trying to deny a scientific reality when they question the need for deep and immediate austerity.

The term “denier” should sound familiar to those who follow the climate wars. It’s a cudgel used against those who question the vast—it must be said—scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real and dangerous. But it’s not only similarity with the debt war. For climate hawks, global warming is an existential threat to the United States and to the rest of the world. If we fail to take strong action to reduce carbon emissions, we risk the prosperity and even survival of the future. There is no threat, no issue more important, and we should be willing to ensure short-term economic pain if necessary to head off catastrophe. The climate deniers are dangerous, and they must be defeated.

There are differences, of course, between the climate wars and the debt battles. I think climate hawks have a much stronger case than deficit scolds, one grounded in science, even if climate advocates can sometimes overstate the strength of their case, and downplay the costs that would come with beating global warming. But the real difference is political power and media influence.

Good luck turning on a cable news show without getting an earful from one deficit scold or another. And while Fox News may lead the league in deficit fear-mongering, it’s not alone-see MSNBC morning show anchor and moderate Republican Joe Scarborough, a hardline deficit hawk, bringing knives to gun fights with Krugman*. As for actual power—as opposed to Nielsen share—there can be little doubt that Washington is mostly controlled by people who have become obsessed by American I.O.U.s. The partisan difference is in how and where we’ll cut, not whether the red ink is a very, very serious problem. Just look at the bipartisan duo of Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erksine Bowles, who by the time you read this have probably publicized another plan to slash the deficit through spending cuts and revenue increases and more spending cuts. The chairmen of Fix the Debt, the group that coined “debt deniers,” include Democrat Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, and the former Republican Senator Judd Gregg. In politically polarized Washington, debt reduction is about as bipartisan as apple pie and the sun rising in the East.

But climate change doesn’t quite have the same political or media firepower. Trust me, I know about the latter—barring the occasional geographically-targeted superstorm, it’s become pretty hard to clear out dead tree space for a climate change story. The mainstream media, most of the time, has other things to worry about—like the debt—and there’s no equivalent to the sheer volume of cable news fear dedicated to the deficit. Politically, forget about it. The Republican Party chiefly does no acknowledge the existence of global warming—full stop. Most Democrats and the White House feel differently, but while Obama has been more vocal about climate change since he secured reelection—funny, that—it remains to be seen what he will actually do, and what political price he’d be willing to pay.

Societies are like people—we only have so much attention to disperse, and what we choose to focus that attention on defines us. It’s telling that of two long-term challenges—each of which would demand some sacrifice now—our political and media culture has chosen to focus so overwhelmingly on debt. Be it fiscal or environmental, we’re still going to owe.

[*Update: I clarified this sentence from the original post to note that Scarborough, though he works for the liberal-skewing MSNBC, is a Republican.]

16 comments
JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Are they mutually exclusive? No.  I think our political leaders are failing on both issues.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

The notion that climate change rivals the debt crisis in terms of importance is misleading.

As a nation, we are $16 trillion in debt, and have spent in excess of $3 trillion during years 2011-2012 (and expected in 2013).  We are dealing with exploding entitlement costs that worsen our nation's bankruptcy.  Yet, we have no solutions to these towering financial issues.

And, in response, this article wants to talk about climate???  What these side-show environmentalists don't understand is that WE'RE BROKE as a country.  If we don't fix the financial issues first, than we won't be able to afford the costs of significant climate change legislation.  While the environmentalists may live, eat, and breath green, they do not realize just how much our nation lacks real 'green.'

ThirstyBarbarian
ThirstyBarbarian

When climate change really starts to hurt, we're going to look back at this time and wonder why we spent it arguing about money. 

EtaoinShrdlu
EtaoinShrdlu

Global Warming is taking a back seat due to the fact that NASA, UN's IPCC, UK Met Office and others,  in order to save face, are starting to back away from their  atmospheric CO2/ warming theory due to the ever increasing actual scientific data that show that CO2 is at most, a minor climate driver.  And also because they  were all basing their CO2 theory on computer models, all of which have failed to predict temperature, and they now all agree that there has been no actual warming for the past 16 years even though CO2 has increased 8% during that period.  However, those who have large investments in "green" energy and those who have found gov't grants for global warming scare stories to be far better than a gold mine are trying hard to preserve the "consensus faery story  --- some no doubt to gain time to, like Al Gore,Jr, to bail out.

Pl. try to catch up with the climate curve; you are way back there.



DJFriedmanUCS
DJFriedmanUCS

@bryanrwalsh Very interesting article. p.s. Not my area, but not clear that Joe Scarborough is a good example of bipartisan debt concern.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@mrbomb13 So when we have problems with disease and water shortage brought by warmer temps how exactly will us focusing on budgets instead of the real threats to our well being be of help?

normfarris4
normfarris4

@mrbomb13 @JohnDavidDeatherage The issue is that the politicians can only take one big political hit where they stare down powerful lobbyists. Since the more conservative one don't believe in climate change anyway, it's easier to stand tall on the debt crisis since the interest groups they would be staring down wouldn't vote for them anyway.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@mantisdragon91 @mrbomb13 

First, thank you for your reply.  Just a couple of comments:

1) Regarding "problems with disease," you're going to have to specify the diseases to which you're referring.  As far as I'm aware, 'warmer temps' (you'll have to define those too) alone are not a direct cause of any known disease.  If they were, all desert populations (i.e. the Middle East) would gradually cease to exist.

2) Regarding water shortage, you're going to have to be more specific as well.  Furthermore, you're going to have to prove that those shortages were directly caused by 'warmer temps,' and not other causes (i.e. irrigation, damning, pooling for mineral deposits (re: the Dead Sea), etc.).  

Also, you're going to have to reconcile how there can be water shortages when the sea levels are rising.  The two claims contradict one another.  Lastly, you're going to have to prove that those rising sea levels could not be desalinated and purified, so as to compensate for any alleged water shortage.

3) By not turning your focus to budgetary issues, you completely miss their importance.  In order to deal with the alleged issues you raise, our nation will need sufficient funds to invest in those solutions.  Those funds are planned, discussed, and then finalized in an annual budget.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@mrbomb13@mantisdragon91

1) This should cover the disease issue- http://www.who.int/globalchange/publications/climatechangechap6.pdf

2) Desalination is very expensive and there are issues with fouled membranes which can impact efficiency. This is actually what my fiancee is doing her doctoral project on so I can get more info if needed. Because the weather is changing due to climate change you have less water falling in some places and more in others which leads to localized water shortages since it is currently cost prohibitive to move water long distances in large quantities.

3) Based on the current mind set of the Republican party I see no desire to ever allocate funds to climate change.