The Greatest Debt to Our Children and Grandchildren Is a Climate Debt

Hurricane Sandy

Dean Baker is right: if we’re going to start making policy out of concern for the legacy we will leave to our children and grandchildren, then you have to address the probability that the planet will grow too warm to sustain life in vast areas of the map. Certainly that counts as an urgent priority more than whether actuarial budget projections pencil out thirty years into the future:

The political leadership, including the Washington press corps and punditry, were already intently ignoring the economic downturn that is still wreaking havoc on the lives of tens of millions of people across the country. Now, in the wake of the destruction from Hurricane Sandy, they will intensify their efforts to ignore global warming. After all, they want the country to focus on the debt – an issue that no one other than the elites views as a problem […]

What is perhaps most infuriating about this crew is the claim that their efforts are somehow designed to benefit our children and grandchildren. This is bizarre for a number of reasons. First, while they do want to cut social security and Medicare for current retirees and those expecting to benefit from these programs in the near future, the biggest cuts in their plans will hit today’s young […]

However, what’s even more bizarre regarding their generational equity logic is the idea that, somehow, the well-being of future generations can be measured in any way by the size of the government debt. This point should have been pounded home to even the thickest deficit hawk by Hurricane Sandy. What we do or don’t do in the next decade will have a huge impact on the climate conditions that our children and grandchildren experience.

Well put. And this is true EVEN IN THE CONTEXT OF THE FEDERAL BUDGET. Spending on sustainable programs like Social Security matters much less to that budget picture in 2040 than the impact of catastrophic climate change. Hurricane Sandy is projected to cost $50 billion. Imagine one or more of those types of weather events every year, in the midst of rising oceans that will only make the impact greater. Imagine the cost of resource wars as water becomes less potable and drought conditions magnify, destroying crops and making the basic human act of feeding ourselves less secure. The costs of unmitigated climate change are almost incalculable. Yet we’re taking our green eyeshades to focus on other matters.

The idle talk of incorporating a climate fee/carbon tax into the grand bargain negotiations makes me wince. Not because it would be the obvious thing to do, but because it’s so out of the realm of possibility. The elites cannot slow the boiling of the planet when the important work of lining up decades-long actuarial projections comes first.

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