Why does Washington DC have so many more deficit hawks than climate hawks?

The GOP is launching yet another massive assault on future generations today, proposing deep cuts in the clean energy solutions that are central to averting catastrophic climate change.  Many of the ideas in the GOP’s ‘austerity budget for the poor and middle class’ are typically considered political suicide — like gutting Medicare.  And they may yet prove to be suicidal if President Obama and progressives take them all on boldly.

I know — that’s a big IF.  I’ll discuss the cuts later, but what is fascinating is that this deficit debate is now front and center at all in the midst of economic tough times.

This post was spurred by a recent post from the iconoclastic conservative (?) blogger Andrew Sullivan (who supported both Kerry and Obama).  A few weeks ago, at the right-hand side of his page under his heading, “Sully’s recent keepers,” appeared a post  that is definitely not worth keeping:

To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over. He thinks you’re fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama’s cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America’s fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end.


The final sentence betrays him.  No one in the punditocracy seriously thought he could change DC politics.  That’s just something outsiders promise to win the votes of independents while they preach policy to their base.

More to the point, as problems facing American’s youth,  the deficit is certainly a significant concern.  But it is only a long-term concern.   Young people obviously have far more immediate concerns, paying for their education, getting a job, and so on.

Yet as a long-term concern it pales in comparison with the threat caused by human-caused climate change, which is rapidly approaching irreversibility and will devastate the lives of billions of people, for many decades if not centuries (see Royal Society special issue details ‘hellish vision’ of 7°F (4°C) world “” which we may face in the 2060s! and A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice).

Moreover,  we could do very little about the deficit for a decade or more and still address the problem in a simple and straightforward (albeit painful) fashion in the 2020s.  But doing very little about climate change for a  decade or more makes averting multiple catastrophes infinitely more complicated.

And yet most political thought leaders make countless pronouncements about the dangers of deficits while remaining either uneducated or willfully ignorant on climate (see Some pundits challenge my statement, “Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions”).

Fundamentally, policymakers don’t get it when it comes to climate change, but arguably they don’t get it when it comes to most issues.  What drives the obsession with deficits is that the GOP uses deficits as a stalking horse for eviscerating government.  The public doesn’t actually care much about deficits, except in economic hard times, when conservatives are able to conflate our economic problems with our deficit problem — and when progressives are too feckless to stand up for the importance of government spending, and especially government investment, to both short-term and long-term economic health.

Finally, the media sees its role as promoters of good government, narrowly defined.  That is, the punditocracy feels big deficits are inherently a sign of bad government, so they legitimize the debate and the “courage” of those who propose politically untenable solutions to the deficit.

Since most of the DC punditocracy doesn’t understand the dire climate situation, they just treatit as one more political issue that, right now, seems to be a loser.  Ironically, if Sullivan himself understand climate, he’d realize that the next generation isn’t being screwed by our lack of a deficit policy, it’s being screwed by our lack of a climate policy (see The failed presidency of Barack Obama).

24 Responses to Why does Washington DC have so many more deficit hawks than climate hawks?

  1. Politics moves from one distraction to another. The national debt and federal deficit are real problems which our politicians (whether Democratic or Republican) aren’t equipped to solve. Just as our nation’s neverending wars and endless warmongering (sorry, Libyam we’re bombing you for oil’s sake and for no other reason …) are real problems which neither political party can solve nor do they have any inclination to attempt a solution.

    The price of gasoline rises, food prices rise and there is an ongoing economic collapse. The government cannot even speak about these issues honestly much less address them in any meaningful manner.

    So pollution fills the atmosphere and the ocean and the politicians look the other way, deny the existence of a problem, or they acknowledge its existence but are apparently absolutely powerless to address the problem. This was true when the Democratic party possessed the majority and it is even more true today and there is no prospect for the situation to change at any point in the near or distant future.

    Getting a new president won’t change anything (as 2008’s election results have proven conclusively) nor will anything be gained by engaging in a revolution.

    At some point it is necessary to acknowledge that humankind isn’t capable of solving its own problems and that our species will not escape from the penalty which Nature must impose upon those who wantonly destroy their only home in the Universe.

    There is no happy ending to the human story. God, alien life forms, science and technology will not provide a last second solution. That which is lost is lost forever.

    It is a hopeless message but there is very little which humankind has accomplished over the last 12,000 years which would generate even the faintest glimmer of hope regarding humankind’s future.

    So it goes …

  2. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Do you find it curious that all of these deficit hawks suddenly appeared the day after President Obama’s inauguration?

  3. Raul M. says:

    Gas stations rally for sweet deals out of the
    strategic oil reserves.
    US joins conflict in Libya.

    Japan has a nuclear crisis.
    Bank of Japan holds significant US Treasury
    Notes and untold instability?

  4. Bill W says:

    There is one thing that politicians understand, and it’s closely related to deficits: money.

  5. Mimikatz says:

    Even more important, the only large pot of money that could be used for future tax cuts for the rich is the money that goes to Medicare and Social Security. (Defense could work, but at seems to be off limits.). So the manufactured debt crisis is being used to gut those programs. See Paul Ryan’s budget plan.

    Real climate policy would also require a much more interventionist government, which the DC establishment really dislikes. So it is in their interest to minimize the climate threat.

    Ironically, it is the climate crisis that will probably solve the debt problem, because the old, sick and poor will be hurt (and die) most from climate changes, and that will reduce demands on Medicare, Social security and Medicaid. During crises there will be a reduced emergency capability because of budget cuts, and they will be the ones to suffer the most. I don’t know how much of this is deliberate, but some of it probably is.

  6. Kasra says:

    Republicans don’t really care about anything substantial, like long-term deficits, they just really, really want to stay in power. How could they manage that in the face of somebody as charming as Barack Obama? By insuring that the economy doesn’t actually improve by 2012, i.e., cutting off vital stimulus and ruining the economy, then using the guise of “fiscal responsibility” to take more seats. Pretty solid calculus, especially when you’ve got a blatantly manipulative communications power-house like Fox news to drive home all the wrong points.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent post Joe. It’ll be interesting how far the Dems will roll over for this – not hearing any serious push back so far on the deficit attack, again letting the GOP define the debate / argument.

    The duplicity of the GOP approach is amazing – after they just forced the extension of the Bush Tax cuts last year which makes the deficits worse, here they are saying we need to cut X because of the huge deficit (much of which is caused by those tax cuts the 2008 financial crisis created by their financial industry deregulation legislation) and its a crisis.

    Of course there will need to be a tax cut for business, rich and wealthy in there to since they want to get us to a regressive tax schedule – and have been very successful over the last 30 years moving us, step by step, towards that goal (as well as eliminating company funded retirements).

    I’m sure there is also a calculation that if they can pull spending back fast enough it could negatively affect the economy by the 2012 election season – McConnell said earlier that preventing Obama’s re-election is their #1 priority (above all else – even the economy and jobs), amazing he said that publicly (and that there wasn’t consequences for it).

  8. I’m heading for the hills as soon as I can.

  9. Mark says:

    The internet is also part of the problem. From the news (not the opinion) section of an Australian paper comes this gem:

    Idiots used to be corralled in places called pubs, in which they could bore each other with their crazy opinions while drinking themselves into alcoholic dementia but now — suddenly — they are everywhere……

    It’s increasingly apparent that the internet may bring about the death of human civilisation, beating out previous contenders such as nuclear holocaust and the election of George W. Bush. The agents of this planetary death will be the climate-change deniers who, it’s now clear, owe much of their existence to the internet…

  10. LucAstro says:

    The right is right on the deficit issue and that is why taxes must go up, subsidies to fossil energy companies must end as well as those tothe nuclear industry. Also forget subsidizing clean coal investments and reduce military spending, learn to negotiate rather than waging new wars. Forget your Empire, the World does not need one. All this is not complicated to do if you are connected to reality. This is impossible if clinging to the Disney Land fantasy. How much richer should rich countries like Canada, USA, Australia become at the expense of the limited World resources? The right is not honest, but worst the democrats appear to be neither on the left nor bold and courageous to put up an inspiring fight. With all the GOP proposed savage cuts, it is as if the US wished to become like another Latin American country, with a few extremely rich peoples and a vast majority of people striving to survive. Is this your goal? You produced the best Science in the World, please use it, we need a leading nation to deal with climate change on a planetary scale. Who else could lead? (I mean lead not control).

  11. benny chien says:

    At the suggestion of Dr. Richard Somerville, I wanted to offer insights into the current political/environmental climate from excerpts of my 1995 satire, Plutonium Prayer. This almost true story involves a scheme of “evangelicals for nukes” to convert a failed nuclear power plant into an evangelical theme park. Preposterous as it sounds, the story comes close to reality and deals with the unholy alliance of evangelicals, nuclear industry, and political opportunists. I believe that you and your readers will find both insight and entertainment. The story is at: First few sentences are below.
    I can also send you excerpts directly. Thank you.
    Benny Chien, M.D., J.D.
    Biotechnology Consultants
    Plutonium Prayer 1995
    The Lord surely moved in strange ways the day that the Twen Grinch dropped his beloved King James Bible next to the gleaming platinum silver Mercedes SL600. The license plate on the front bumper said NUCLEAR. He stared at those ominous letters for several minutes, mesmerized, before he picked up the Bible in his right hand, and contemplated the sensuous curves of the car, its opulent leather seats, CD player, telephone. Then the revelation hit him with like a bolt of lightning, or at least what seemed to be a roar of thunder from on high.

  12. Vince says:

    I have to agree, to some degree, at least, with Sullivan here. While I don’t disagree that climate changes is a far more important problem than the deficit, the deficit does matter. And how we reduce that deficit matters as well. On this front, Obama is negotiating entirely on Republicans’ terms, simply negotiating how much to cut spending on a whole host of fronts, many of which will negatively impact climate change (or not impact climate change). Sullivan is certainly right that Obama has sold out pretty much every one who got him elected. He has thrown his lot in completely with the banksters and the corporate elite and thrown average folk, and the climate, under the bus.

  13. Michael Tucker says:

    EXACTLY! Not an emergency. No reason to get excited. It’s politics baby and they are playing the game as usual. But it isn’t just DC.

  14. Ben Lieberman says:

    It’s also a problem for the left. Progressives or liberals may, in general, believe that climate change is real and even support action in a very passive way, but many do not seem very animated by the issue in the way they might when it comes to social issues or questions of identity and equality. We could have a society without discrimination and still totally destroy the planet.

  15. Joan Savage says:

    What troubles me is the trend to lop off an ear or arm or leg from the body politic instead of putting the whole organism on the equivalent of a diet and exercise plan. Losing functionality is a very uncomfortable deficit.

    The goal to make the federal vehicle fleet run on electric is the kind of ‘diet and exercise’ inclusion of a climate change measure throughout the federal system. Is there anything else that has the feature of being systemic, not a separable program?

    Which of the clean energy programs provide the best leverage to change other behaviors on a wide scale? That’s not rhetorical, I really don’t know.

    I’m guessing that private investors will jump on the Prieto battery opportunity without appealing for federal aid. It’s not always a case of government or bust.

  16. Kota says:

    Washington has more deficit hawks than climate hawks because there are more extroverts than introverts in the population.

    With a deficit there is always someone else to blame while praising the people you are talking to. That is exactly what extroverts desire, to be told they are the fair and good people being taken advantage of by those ‘others’.

    Introverts will examine a problem, investigate if they are a part of the problem and attempt to self correct if they are. Unfortunately climate problems are everyones problem. There are hardly any non-carbon people that get to feel they are the good people being taken advantage by the ‘others’ in the USA. I know I’m not off grid and I buy chocolate that has the beans shipped half a globe away. But I’m an introvert not motivated by praise or discouraged by being dissed. I plug away getting an LED bulb here, a local vegetable there. Do one run a week for supplies … blah blah blah.

    I know of two extroverts that recycle and think climate change is a big problem and STILL voted republican. I simply cannot understand how they do that disconnect. I vote the most ecological person I can find on the ticket, period. They keep voting their ‘tribe’ no matter their concerns about the environment. They ‘wish’ that the ‘people’ they voted for would do more for the environment. Introverts identify the problem and vote for anyone willing to push to fix it.

    Extroverts tend to vote for the ‘people that tell them they are good people’ and introverts tend to vote the problems that most concern them no matter what tribe the people come from.

    So. If and when there is ever a crop up of Republicans that are concerned about the environment more than their rich contributors (Democrats too) and can praise their people for being good stewards of the planet, there are many of their tribe on both sides waiting and eager to do more for that leader.

    A very green progressive Republican leader would do wonders for our planet. Like that’s gonna happen!!

  17. dp says:

    people who cheered the growth of a historic credit bubble now deny it collapsed under its own weight and declare themselves experts on national finance, pretending the budget deficit is not the result of plutocratic tax giveaways and wild-eyed market radicalism.

    they then argue (stupidly of course) that government investment in infrastructure is wasted effort, ignoring that the internet was a public project and that the highway system has been central to american prosperity since the great depression.

    i don’t even know why it surprises anyone that such blatant BS artists claim to doubt the health & economic benefits of protecting ecosystems by using natural resources sparingly. they haven’t demonstrated one iota of sense of direction in ages.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    David Mathews #1. With all due respect, I have to disagree. There have been cultures in the past, many of which our culture overran and attempted to wipe out, which worked on the basis of cooperation, with each other and with the Earth. They respected the carrying capacity of the lands they inhabited and respected life in general.

    This current Western industrialized culture only really sprang into action at the beginning of the industrial revolution. One of its main features is that it is built on a design principle that generates competition and self interest which in turn generates great destruction both of the people and the planet.

    The ancient cultures were based on the other design principle that promotes equality and cooperation. You see it in action when people automatically come together and cooperate after disasters etc. You will see much more of this in the near future and I am hopeful that people will eventually see that this is THE way to go. You can learn more about these 2 design principles at, ME

  19. Green Caboose says:

    Why does Washington DC have so many more deficit hawks than climate hawks?

    An apparently unrelated question: why does the military term “hawk” now carry a far more positive connotation amongst Americans than “dove”, whereas the situation was the exact reverse 35 years ago?

    But although the questions appear unrelated, in fact they have very similar answers. In both cases a long-term, incredibly well-funded complex mix of PR campaigns has radically altered the way Americans think about key issues.

  20. Joe Snow says:

    Because money is the only thing America cares about. I can`t wait until I`m dead to spend it all!

  21. Washington has deficit ‘hawks’ you say? Just two words missing: right now. And excellent point by JR on ‘anti-deficit’ as a ‘stalking horse’ (and/or trojan horse, and/or Fig Leaf for that matter, a cover for the hidden agenday) which is?

    Eviscerating government? Almost agree with JR, but also a few words missing here too…eviscerating THAT PART OF government which SERVES THE PUBLIC.

    The parts of government that subsidize coal, oil?

    The parts of government that spend almost a TRILLION per year on militarism?

    The parts of government that take public-paid research results (creation of the internet, today’s NIH, etc) and then hand them over to private industry for profit without giving those who paid (the public) ownership?

    No problem! They are NOT for eviscerating those parts of government, quite the opposite.

    Reagan comes in, “Deficits are bad!” comes in and increases deficits not by spending on programs that serve the public, but on huge militarism increase and tax cuts for the rich. Bush Sr., still deficits are not a problem except when convenient excuse to cut more programs that “merely” serve the poeople, the public, the regular Joes (sorry) and Janets.

    Clinton had plenty of faults (NAFTA, gutting key programs for the poor etc) but got a budget Surplus.

    What was the reaction in 2000? Was it “great! let’s keep things from getting out of hand, but now we can afford to spend a *little* more on programs that serve the Public!” No, no, no! Cut more taxes for the rich until you CREATE a deficit. George W Bush, that plus a huge military increase

    Boo hoo! Where will we EVER find the money to get a few trillion in savings? Gee, how about a half-trillion dollars per year cut from militarism which gets us 5 Trillion over 10 years from that alone, the same militarism that has led to us not only not being “safer” (ha ha, wink wink) but as even establishment sources admit, have made us LESS SAFE. Today’s military sales, military bases, military occopations, today’s military aid to dictators, etc, is not just money wasted, it’s the seeds for the excuse for tomorrow’s military bombing of cities, more death abroad and more death for US soldiers,…merely ‘wasting’ the money would be only half as bad..Almost a trillion per year, easily ten times what we’d need for a truly pure-defensive Defense department, and it makes us far, far less safe.

    Back to our story. Reagan/BushSr: Claim Deficits “Bad!” but creates MORE deficits not by spending on programs that serve We The People but for corporations and the miltiary industrial complex. Decific Hawks? Relatively quiet.

    Clinton? Gets a surplus, and the reaction is what? Less deficit hawks? No, MORE deficit hawks, after all some money might go not to Pengaton and Wall Street but to programs which serve Main Street, can’t have that!

    Bush Jr? Suddently deficit hawks are much, much queiter…

    all while 400 billion per year becomes 800-900 billion per year in militarism, and unfunded tax cuts for multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires are instituted

    Next, Obama, oops, suddenetly deficits MATTER again!

    Next time a sufficiently corporate and right-wing Republican (or right wing Democrat) is elected?

    You know the reaction: suddently deficits will be ‘important but not as urgent’…not as urgent as massively increasing deficits with military spending, more subsidies and give-aways to Forture 500 and the super rich

    Will We Ever Learn? Probably not as long as legal bribe campaign finance is declared “free speech” by our legal system

  22. BobG says:

    I think climate realists should be deficit realists as well. Here’s why: In a warming world, crises are going to come. You can bank on that. Some of those crises will require significant money to address. What will happen if the United States lacks the financial resources to address these crises because it has such serious deficit problems? Our collective challenge is not merely successfully addressing climate change (although that is more than enough of a challenge), the challenge is somehow shepherding our civilization through the age of peak oil and peak population, across a bridge to the end of the twentieth century. To undertake such an awesome task, we should get our fiscal house in order.

  23. @#1 David Mathews

    “At some point it is necessary to acknowledge that humankind isn’t capable of solving its own problems and that our species will not escape from the penalty which Nature must impose upon those who wantonly destroy their only home in the Universe.”

    The elements of western civilisation that most people seem to want to emulate are the sense of freedom and choice. We presently still have a choice but are proving remarkably resistant to making it, probably because the fear of change still outweighs the fear of the impacts of climate change.
    Traditional politics of “us versus them” has no role to play in finding a solution because the problem is, really, “us versus the laws of physics and chemistry”. Climate change will severely limit our ability to enjoy freedom and choice: it may well precipitate a complete collapse of civilisation as we know it.
    Most of man’s problems are caused by applying a solution before fully understanding what the source of the problem is. The money system is part of the way we communicate and is dependant upon our shared imagination for its existence. The ecosystem is what sustains us but presently we believe it makes things “cheaper” if we destroy it. Connecting the money system to the ecosystem such that people are rewarded for living with the planet rather than on it is, I believe, our best hope.
    And there are some signs that we could move that way: Michael Porter in Harvard Business Review has called for refocusing capitalism on “shared value”: the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project is beginning to make some headway.
    Humans are great problem solvers. Our politics and economics might make the climate issue a particularly more difficult problem to solve but it can be done if we choose to do so. It is the greatest choice any of us will make in our lifetimes.

  24. Steve says:

    The American people are enslaved to the military industrial complex. As further proof the political right are not serious about deficits is their refusal to consider any reduction in military spending which we all know enrich their benefactors. To make their hypocrisy more complete is that the deficit fight comes on the heals of Obama’s cave on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Cheney quipped that when a Republican is in the White House deficits don’t matter. Bush 2 ran up huge deficits when the economy was strong and now the same people want to fix the deficit when the economy is weak. This is anti-Keynes in its truest form and Obama has let them get away with it.

    Joe is right, Obama’s messaging is terrible, counter productive and self defeating. His strategies to achieve his political objectives will ensure failure. We all know that he inherited a dogs breakfast but he is not a fighter. He does not want to get his hands dirty. What is needed now is a bare knuckle brawler. While deficits matter in the long run what is more urgent now is turning the economy around. Focusing on deficits will only make the economy worse. What is needed are trillions in new government spending on public works to address the infrastructure deficit and clean energy, to put the jobless back to work as FDR did in the 1930s. The rich should be forced to make the downpayments that are necessary.

    On a daily basis the Republicans hand their own heads to Obama on a silver platter and yet he diverts his gaze and only reluctantly acknowledges their logical inconsistencies while refusing to make political hay from it. It is impossible for me to believe that the status quo ship of state will be turned in enough time to prevent a 2 degree temperature rise. It will take more environmental 911’s with a climatic black swan eclipsing last years hit on world agriculture tossed into the mix before people wake from their slumber. By that time we could be faced with 4 or 5 degrees warming. That is the risk that Obama is taking with his legacy. Despite all his achievements history will judge him to be massive fail. Yes we can’t.