What Does The Fiscal Cliff Debacle Say About Our Chances To Avoid The Far More Worrisome Climate Cliff?

Jan 2, 2013 by

ThinkProgress

By Joe Romm on Jan 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm

What a sorry spectacle it has been in Washington, DC these last few weeks. Our political leaders failed to meet their self-imposed deadline for dealing with the deficit in a manner that doesn’t mean austerity-driven recession.

And while it looks like they do have a bipartisan deal — assuming it can pass the House after winning easy Senate approval — the plan avoids many of the toughest choices (details here).

The deal isn’t terrible — it extends the wind tax credit, for instance. In the top story on its website, the NY Times asserts that the plan “while containing many concessions that angered Democrats, still favors the latter party’s priorities and imposes a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans.”

Perhaps, but as Nobelist Paul Krugman explains in a blog post this morning, we won’t know if the deal was sort-of-okay or dreadful until we see what happens next (in the debt ceiling fight):

If Obama stands his ground in that confrontation, this deal won’t look bad in retrospect. If he doesn’t, yesterday will be seen as the day he began throwing away his presidency and the hopes of everyone who supported him.

That final sentence is true only if you don’t count Obama’s failure on climate as the day(s) he began throwing away his presidency and the hopes of countless generations (see “Obama Wins Reelection, Now Must Become A Climate Hawk To Avoid Dust-Bin Of History, Dust Bowl For America“).

The NY Times concludes that one big lesson from the debacle is “Grand Bargains Give Way to Quick Fixes” and “bipartisan legislative dreams seem all but certain to be miniaturized” — but that has been obvious for a while. It’s not like Obama got any House GOP votes to support either the stimulus bill or health care plan.

Indeed, the fiscal cliff was a largely manufactured crisis, as Krugman explained in his Sunday NYT oped, “Brewing Up Confusion.” The truth is for all the political hand-wringing, all the media sturm und drang, neither party considers the deficit the preeminent or most urgent economic threat to the nation. Progressives understand slow economic growth and high unemployment are the top problems and that the solution is more investment plus help for the unemployed. The Tea Party crowd that have taken over the conservative movement (and GOP) thinks government spending is the problem (otherwise they would have hardly been so adamant against tax hikes being part of a grand bargain).

Cartoonists, at least, get that the fiscal cliff is a mild soar throat compared to the early-stage emphysema that is the climate cliff.

Image by Matt Bors/Daily Kos via Buzzfeed.

So perhaps the headline question should have been “Does The Fiscal Cliff Debacle Say Anything New About Our Chances To Avoid Climate Cliff?” To answer that question, it’s worth pointing out what we already knew about those chances from the last truly big economic threat to the nation — which I discussed in an October 2008 post, “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout.” I’m excerpting it below because the piece shows how little has changed in 4+ years:

 

No, 450 is not politically possible today. Nor is 550. Nor is action sufficient to stave off 1000 ppm and 6°C warming.

OK, that was clear before because Congressional conservatives can certainly block the necessary action and demagogue the energy price issue — and they obviously intend to (see “Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“).

But I think the financial bailout bill story has yet more sobering lessons:

  1. Multi-hundred-billion-dollar-sized government action happens only when there is a very, very big crisis. Yes, lots of people out there think happy talk about clean energy and green collar jobs is mainly what you need to get a massive government spending program. Not gonna happen. The happy talk can help sell the needed policies, but without the crisis, it leads nowhere.
  2. A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a crisis to be “very, very big” is that it must be labeled as such by very serious people who are perceived as essentially nonpartisan opinion leaders. In this case, it was the panic from people like uber-billionaire Warren Buffet and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and even people like CNBC’s Jim Cramer (yes, he shouts a lot, but he called this meltdown a year ago and has a lot of credibility with the media).
  3. In addition, bad things must be happening to regular people right now. It was quite interesting that the House in particular voted down the original bailout but reversed itself in large part because of the ensuing stock market meltdown and in part because they started to hear from all of the small and large businesses in their districts that the credit market was freezing up.
  4. The credible people must say that the government action is going to solve the problem.This is a crucial point also missed by lots of people. If Buffet and Bernanke and Cramer said the sky is falling but your plan ain’t going to stop it, then your plan is dead, dead, dead.

What does this say about the climate predicament?

  1. We have one very big crisis that requires unprecedented government action. The “good news,” if one can call it that, is the crisis is real and imminent — and it does lend itself to government-led solutions. Also, like the bailout, the total dollar “cost” of the solution is not the total dollar cost to the taxpayer, since, for the bailout, the underlying financial assets the government will buy have value and, for global warming, the cap-and-trade bill plus clean tech push will create massive energy savings and whole new industries.
  2. But we simply don’t have a critical mass of credible nonpartisan opinion leaders who understand the nature of our energy and climate problem (see “Most opinion leaders just don’t get global warming“). When the heck are people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates going to speak up on dire nature of the global warming situation, rather than, say, scoping out climate-destroying investments in Canada (see “Gates and Buffet to invest in tar sands and spawn more two-headed fish“)? Yes, we have virtually the entire scientific community begging for strong action, but they aren’t opinion leaders in this country anymore and indeed they aren’t credible to a large segment of U.S. society (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“). Meeting this necessary condition for serious action is greatly complicated by the conservative crusade against climate action, which is not just a disinformation campaign but a concerted effort to label any scientist or journalist or opinion maker who speaks out on global warming as just a stooge of the left-wing eco-imperialists — “environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation,” as Charles Krauthammer put it, or “more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives” as George Will put it (see “The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science“). In short, the disinformation campaign seeks to discredit all credible calls for action.
  3. Bad things are happening to real people right now thanks in part to human-caused climate change — droughts, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather, and on and on. But many environmentalists and journalists downplay the causality or think it is a mistake to talk about those things (see “The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story” and “The NY Times Blows the Drought Story, too” and “Gustav, climate, drilling — Some enviros self-censor, but should progressives?” and “The Washington Post’s Joel Achebach doesn’t understand basic climate science“). And, of course, we have the disinformation campaign telling everybody either that the future won’t be too bad. [The late] Michael Crichton says he is “underwhelmed” by the problem after his “review” of the science. George Will says that climate change might even be “beneficial,” and NYT columnist Jon Tierney writes, “There’s a chance the warming could be mild enough to produce net benefits.” Heck, we even have the GOP Vice Presidential pick telling 70 million Americans last week that climate change impacts stem from “cyclical temperature changes on our planet.” In this classic denier myth, all we have to do is wait and the storm will pass.
  4. The government-led climate and energy actions that might be politically possible today won’t solve the crisis. That was certainly true of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill (see “Boxer bill update: Probably no U.S. CO2 emissions cut until after 2025“).

I find only one glimmer of hope from the financial crisis. Congress and the executive branch acted before the real disaster happened, before we ended up in another Great Depression, indeed before we even technically entered a recession.

So perhaps we can act on climate before the real disaster happens. Yes, I realize that Washington acted because everyone understood we were only days or weeks away from complete financial meltdown and we obviously can’t wait to act until we get anywhere near that close to the climate precipice.

We must act on climate within the next few years — decades before the real, preventable disaster happens. Indeed, no plausible action the nation and the world will take could have significant impact on the the climate for probably the next three decades. It is the post-2040 Hell and High Water scenario, crossing the point of no return to 6°C (or higher) warming, that we are trying — or rather, should be trying — desperately to prevent.

The response to the financial bailout crisis obviously offers no comfort to people hoping we can act decades before the true climate catastrophe hits. But I choose to see the glass as one-tenth full. Why?

The unknown wild-card factor here is presidential leadership. We have never had an inspirational president who was genuinely committed to serious climate action and who actually campaigned on a broad and deep agenda that would put us on a path to solve the problem (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“).

Right now, Obama’s plan is not politically possible. And not just because conservatives oppose it and will demagogue it, but also because moderates don’t get the problem and have been politically intimidated by the demagoguing. And because scientists, environmentalists, and progressives have had poor and inconsistent messaging. And because the traditional media still does a grossly inadequate job (see “Media enable denier spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?“).

But true leaders have transformed what is politically possible in the past. That is where hope lies today.

Yes, that was all written before we elected a leader who promised strong climate action and a Congress where Democrats had big majorities.

The bottom line remains the same, though. We aren’t going to get serious action until we have our climate Churchill — and probably not until climate impacts get so bad that at least those in the persuadable middle start demanding action (see “What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors? What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?“).

The fiscal cliff debacle primarily tells us that the recent election changed nothing for political leaders of either party. We’re stuck with the climate status quo and, unlike our various economic woes, that is a prescription for irreversible, civilization-destroying disaster:

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