The Federal Deficit and Climate Change

It’s an issue that will affect the prosperity of our children and our children’s children. It’s an issue that requires we make cuts today in order to avoid far greater burdens on future generations. It’s an issue that is steeped in complexities and arcane detail that is difficult to communicate to the public, and often requires advanced training in order to understand fully. And it’s an issue that requires bold public leadership today in order to avert consequences that will affect future well-being and quality of life. 


Readers of this blog can be forgiven for immediately assuming that these statements are meant to describe the political challenges of climate change; but the political issue du jour in Washington these days is the federal budget deficit and mounting national debt, and these statements apply for that issue equally as well. We, here at Climate Compass, are not the first to note the similarities in the discourse – but for those of us working in the climate field, or who care deeply about the issue, the parallels are hard to ignore. There is an important difference, however, that seems to affect the public debate. 


While both are complex issues that are at times inherently difficult to understand, the budget provides a much simpler scoring system of dollars and cents; in comparison to the climate debt that we are accruing in the form of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We can see on a chart or graph the totals that budget projections show – and we know from our daily household experiences that increasing debts imply increasing interest payments and costs. 


The climate deficit that continues to accumulate, on the other hand, shows no clear balance of payments or future due dates. But make no mistake; the charges we are putting against our climate credit card will eventually create even greater costs over time as changes accelerate. Greenhouse gases, once emitted, stay in the atmosphere for centuries.  Any emissions made today, tomorrow, and over the next several years commit the planet to warming over the lifetime of those gases. 


Even though it is not as easy to track the mounting costs of our climate deficit, we know the debt will have to be paid in the form of increasingly severe weather events, changes in agricultural productivity, mass migrations, and sea level rise – just to name a few. This means that the unchecked emissions we continue to create are racking up a greenhouse gas debt that will force increasingly expensive costs on current and future generations. 


So as the debate continues inside the beltway on how to address the federal deficit – remember that in the case of both the budget deficit and climate change, it will be far less expensive to pay a little today and avoid paying far more later.


Sources:

Historical National Debt (to 2009):  Congressional Budget Office - http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/120xx/doc12039/historicalTables[1].xls

Projections of National Debt (from 2010):  Congressional Budget Office - http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/120xx/doc12039/BudgetTables[1].xls

Historical GHG Emissions (to 2009): EIA IES - http://www.eia.doe.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm

Projected GHG Emissions (from 2010): EIA AEO, Table A18 - http://www.eia.doe.gov/analysis/projection-data.cfm#annualproj

 

Russell Meyer is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Policy