Now We Have ‘Default Deniers’ But The Real Danger Remains A Climate Shutdown

Unlike the budget and debt crises, climate change is not a problem that allows 11th-hour solutions. When a livable climate shuts down, it can’t be fixed for a millennium.

Tea Party extremists shut down the US government. Their economic brinksmanship made clear many were ready to shut down the global economy by refusing to pay our nation’s debts.

And their ability to wield power nihilistically greatly increases the chances of a climate shutdown — a debt they want to leave our children and all future generations, but one that is far more dangerous than the fiscal debt because it is both catastrophic and irreversible.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank writes Wednesday of the House GOP’s Tea Party wing:

If a sizable minority within his caucus is here in Washington with the main purpose of disabling federal power, why would this faction be eager to end a government shutdown or avoid a default? Some of them are “default deniers” who think the whole threat to the full faith and credit of the United States is a hoax.

Sound familiar? The Tea Party bases its beliefs and actions not on the facts but on how it imagines the impact on the desired outcome — less government at all cost.

Here’s another Post columnist, Michael Gerson, on the latest GOP denial of reality:

But sometimes, it’s been said, the greatest courage is displayed in standing before a crowd and affirming that two plus two equals four — now the main Republican challenge.

You know the GOP has utterly lost touch with reality when it gets slammed by the former chief speechwriter to George W. Bush, a President not exactly known for his fact-based policies!


Three years ago I wrote a piece headlined, “Why the victory of the Tea Party extremists (backed by Big Oil) over the slightly less extreme GOP establishment (also backed by Big Oil) is good for progressives, but bad for climate and clean energy.”

It turns out the situation was even worse than I thought. The Tea Party has shown itself to be nihilistic — they literally believe nihil (nothing) is the best outcome. No government, no creditworthiness for the United States, no livable climate — in their blinkered view, none of these are needed.

We’ve seen the Tea Party essentially seize control of the House of Representatives, preventing any action to pay the nation’s bills until we were directly up against the deadline. If they are able to (continue to) achieve a similar outcome for climate policy then our children and the next 50 generations face multiple, simultaneous catastrophes that will harm the health and well-being of billions.

Climatologist Ken Caldeira wrote me in late September about a key reason the notion of an “allowable CO2 emissions budget” is dangerous:

If you look at how our politicians operate, if you tell them you have a budget of XYZ, they will spend XYZ. Politicians will reason: “If we’re not over budget, what’s to stop us to spending? Let the guys down the road deal with it when the budget has been exceeded.” The CO2 emissions budget framing is a recipe for delaying concrete action now.

If that wasn’t clear to everyone before the recent 11th hour (12th hour?) debt and budget deal, it should be now. Heck, even after the GOP leadership finally gave in to reason after the utter collapse of the Republican brand in the polls, the Tea Party crowd still thinks the GOP leadership is to blame for this humiliating capitulation, not their own delusional, anti-factual strategy. And even this “solution” merely punts both the debt ceiling decision and the government funding decision for a few months. We will likely see this brinksmanship yet again in the not-too-distant future.


But we can’t have an 11th hour climate deal. We can’t even have a 6th hour deal. Really, whatever deal is struck must be a zeroth hour deal — since climate science tells us we will be stuck for a thousand years with whatever climate change we don’t prevent.

Catastrophic climate change is not unstoppable if we act now, but it is irreversible if we don’t. In fact, a 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels would be “largely irreversible for 1000 years.” Those impacts include permanent Dust Bowls in the U.S. Southwest and around the globe on our current emissions trajectory. If we merely peak at 450–600 parts per million of CO2 in the air this century — and we are headed toward 800 to 1000 ppm — then

among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected … are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era and inexorable sea level rise.”

There’s a key flaw in the carbon budget framing we’ve written about before. Most people — including most opinion makers and politicians — don’t understand that avoiding catastrophic global warming requires stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations, not emissions (see here), which means emissions have to become zero when the budget is expended.

Americans are seeing we could have reopened the government any time we wanted to and that we can always pass a simple law to increase the ceiling on the national debt as we have done umpteen times in the past. But solving the carbon budget crisis requires immediate action — and doing things utterly different than what we have done in the past.

When a livable climate shuts down, it can’t be fixed for a millennium. It is a debt that can never be paid back.

Note: The cartoon above was clipped from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two decades ago.