Paying the Price for Climate Change is Unavoidable

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I got invited last night to attend an event in town sponsored by Grist and featuring Tom Friedman talking with Grist’s own Dave Roberts. It was a pretty great event, and I also met several blog readers there (sometimes when people come up to introduce me to themselves they seem nervous, like I’ll be annoyed, but I’m really not—it’s great to meet people and the way I learn things is by people getting in touch and talking to me) so all in all some very good times. That said, focusing attention on environmental issues is, in the present moment, a pretty intrinsically depressing turn.

Back 18 months ago, the big problem with climate seemed to me to be a kind of terrible political bad luck. We had this vicious climate change denialist as president, when many other prominent Republicans—John McCain, John Warner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Crist—were much better on the issue. And even though Democrats had taken the congress, the key House committee was in the hands of an old-line car guy. At the time, it seemed as if the kind of political changes that would put Barack Obama in the White House and Henry Waxman in the Chairman’s seat were what we needed. But then things started happening. And suddenly climate and energy weren’t Obama’s number one priority anymore, health care was. Nancy Pelosi seems to have undertaken the same conversion at a somewhat slower pace. And without meaning to slight the health care issue at all, this is on the merits a perverse way to triage the issues—a good health care bill in 2013 and a good climate bill in 2009 would be a hundred times better for the world than a good health care bill in 2009 and a good climate bill in 2013. I think even hard-core health care people would admit as much.

But of course it’s not as if Pelosi and Obama are blind to this logic. It’s that they’re politicians and they see a much clearer path forward to a good health care bill, so that’s what they’ve put their energy into. And that’s because, tragically, the political moment of possibility for climate legislation has coincided with an enormous recession. And as you can see in this Pew report on ideological change in America that means that even as the public has shifted left on almost everything, they’re shifting right on the environment:


The trouble is that what the public wants is basically a fantasy—a policy that will let us avoid paying the costs involved in coping with the climate crisis. I understand why people want a policy like that—I want one too. The problem is that it can’t happen. We can pay some up-front costs now, or else we can pay the price of catastrophic climate change and then start paying even higher mitigation costs. Friedman analogized what we’re doing to the behavior that led to the financial crisis, and though this can be pushed to far, I think there’s something to it. What we’re doing, basically, is choosing not to account for the real cost of burning fossil fuel. As long as the party lasts, that looks like a great option. But what you’re really doing is building up a bigger and bigger problem that will eventually come crashing down.