Upward trends got you down?: Climate, Debt, and the Future

Graphs are some of the most obnoxious ways of proving a point. I mean, think about having a friendly debate with someone who has come up with “statistical proof” for their argument. Your buddy suddenly thinks they are, like, infallibly right and you’re like “omg-just-shut-up-already.”

In that spirit, I have two graphs I want you to look at.

United States Federal Debt (via Wolfram Alpha)

Global CO2 Levels (via Wolfram Alpha)

It occurred to me the other day that these two graphs, the first being about the United States debt situation and the second being about the global climate crisis, have roughly the same shape. Although both of the above graphs are alarming enough, they also come in hockey stick versions that austerity hawks and enviros often point to for the sake of a rhetorical power play.

So it got me thinking, what else could these two issues have in common? What are some key differences? And so what?

First though, a quick lesson on what each of these graphs mean.

The United States Federal Debt Debacle

Debt, whether a credit card swipe or a government bond, is a strategy of borrowing from the future to take advantages of opportunities in the present. Sure, when done indiscriminately, it can shackle debtors to the past. It can also become a weapon of oppression when the lenders find ways to work the system. But there is nothing inherently bad about debt done responsibly.

Our political system, however, has recently been on the fritz about our federal government’s increasing debt, with campaigners often blaming their favorite public enemy for what has been a bipartisan flop. There is legitimate concern – larger debts are not just more expensive to pay off than smaller ones, but interest charges are also more burdensome the larger the debts.

That said, last-minute political brinksmanship, like we saw with the New Year’s Day decision on the fiscal cliff, is equally (if not more) dangerous than an unjustifiable increase in spending or unfortunate decrease in revenue. The moment a credit agency like Moody’s perceives risk in holding United States federal government debt, interest rates will rise for future debt, compounding the problem.

The Global Climate Crisis

Just like debt, carbon dioxide is not inherently a bad thing. It has its chemical role to play in the cycles of the natural world. If a little bit gets into the atmosphere, from, say, a forest fire or a volcanic eruption, that is not a horrible situation.

The problem is that a lot is getting into the atmosphere, due to the reckless human use of fossil fuels – geological stores of energy unceasingly being released. And above-normal levels of carbon dioxide (along with other greenhouse gases) trap above-normal levels of infrared heat into the planet, with the potential to cause serious imbalances in earth’s natural cycles. The scientific consensus appears to be pretty clear in this department.

As far as political solutions go, there are plenty of ideas but not a lot of willpower. Part of the problem is that the global climate crisis is, well, global. To come up with an agreement where every nation gives up something, and no nation gets a free ride into a better future, is, well, impossible, at least without a spark of idealism.

What do these graphs have in common?

Seeing as these are both upward trends, with no sign of slowing down, it looks as if the consequences are going to be billed to future generations. I use the word “future” loosely. I don’t mean the unborn to come, but those who have come after the decades of decisions that got us into these messes. “Future” could reasonably encompass a good chunk of everyone under the age of 60, and it most certainly includes my Millennial generation and the Gen Z kids I work with.

But! While the price we have to pay is going to be steep, the future generations need to acknowledge the fact that we will get to reap at least some rewards. While the most recent uptick in the federal debt is due less to increased spending and more to depressed revenues, we cannot take for granted the things federal spending has provided us – infrastructure, security, education and apparently now affordable health care.

On the climate change side of things, I think enviros have often struggled to articulate the advances that cheap, quick and accessible energy have given us. If historical fossil fuel use was ⅓ the current amount, for one small example, I doubt you would have the computer/smartphone/tablet you are now using to read these words. We can think of the era of fossil fuels as a stimulus package for the civilization project; now the trick is to keep the fruits of technological prowess while kicking the habit of unsustainably using a limited, polluting resource.

One day fossil fuels will be history. The question will be - what was their legacy?
One day fossil fuels will be history. The question will be – what was their legacy?

What are some key differences?

In the worst of all scenarios, the Feds could reasonably default on their loans and admit to bankruptcy. It would likely be the end of the American nation as we know it, but life would go on. But when we talk about climate change, using the worst of all scenarios that the scientific models have been able to come up with, we can’t be so sure that life would go on.

But let’s not talk about worst-case scenarios. Let’s talk about present political strategies for tackling this problem. In the case of our debt, we have a strict debt ceiling, a seemingly commonsense solution that instead of sparking productive dialogue now appears to be drawing us dangerously close to the even worse problem of defaulting. The opposite is true for climate: we do not put any legal stock whatsoever in “carbon ceilings” like 350ppm or +2°C.

Tackling our debt requires what Americans fear may be impossible: bipartisanship. But tackling the climate crisis requires what may be an even crazier sort of cooperation: international agreements. There simply is no global system of governance that can streamline this process.

I’m not suggesting we need to implement a world government-bureaucracy. That sort of concentration of power, in fact, seems too dangerous to be worthwhile. But the longer we let the climate crisis fester, the more likely we are going to resort to this sort of extreme measure, an unprecedented sacrifice of national sovereignty.

We don’t want that. We need to get creative. Now.

So what?

I’m not going to draw crass utilitarian lines in the sand and say which of these two problems is worse. You’re free to draw your own conclusions in that department, and, for that matter, let your conclusions reflect your original prejudices. It is an apples and oranges comparison; the important thing is acknowledging that they are both fruit. (Quite frankly, the fruit basket is becoming quite full with all the right stuff, with the bananas of gun obtainment reform and the tomatoes of immigration reform now making their appearance).

Correlation does not mean causation, and I believe that is true in the case of these dangerous upward trends. If there is a common cause, it is a cultural propensity to thoughtlessly consume with a view averted to the future. And if it is a cultural thing, no political silver bullet exists that can strike through the heart of both the debt debacle and the climate crisis.

But there is something that can be a partial win-win. A carbon tax, or a levy on emissions of carbon dioxide, is an idea with growing support across the political spectrum. It can help to turn both of these upward trends into mere plateaus.

First, a carbon tax is a just initiative society should just be doing anyways. It is the economic concept of externalities. We get fined for littering, we have to pay for our recycling (whether directly or indirectly), we should have to pay for our carbon emissions.

Second, a carbon tax also raises revenue. Yes, that will make some things more expensive. But, unlike an income tax, a carbon tax will not make productive activity less lucrative. Which is a darn good thing for making payments on our national debt.

Third, a carbon tax, by raising the price of fossil fuel use, gives the innovative free-market something to chew on when it comes to finding clean (and practical) energy solutions and promoting efficiency measures. This might even prove to be a long-term boost to the economy, again increasing revenues and decreasing the debt. The sooner a carbon tax is implemented, the greater the return from this “investment” will be.

It might be possible to see Congress pass a carbon tax sometime this year. Granted, Congress has a nasty track record as of late, but a (well-implemented) carbon tax still strikes me as possible.

Because there is one point I don’t need a graph to prove: we need to address these problems sooner or later. We have a need, as a society, to behave responsibly. And that shouldn’t be all too difficult.

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Upward trends got you down?: Climate, Debt, and the Future

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