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.]