Is the financial crisis more dire than the climate crisis?
Not even close.
If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.
So warned IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri last fall when the IPCC released its major multi-year report synthesizing our understanding of climate science. And remember, Pachauri was handpicked by the Bush administration to replace the “alarmist” Bob Watson. It’s the facts that make scientists alarmists, not their politics (see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“).
What happens if we fail to act in time to avert the climate catastrophe?
- We cross carbon-cycle tipping points, such as the loss of the tundra, beyond which there is “no redemption.”
- We head toward CO2 concentrations this century that are triple or quadruple preindustrial levels.
- We should expect 0.8 to 2.0 meters of sea level rise this century, inundating the homes of 100 million people.
- We face desertification of one third the planet and loss of the glaciers that provide water to a billion people.
- We face loss of more than two thirds of the species on the planet, and a hot, acidic, and largely lifeless ocean.
- We face humanity’s self-destruction — 6 degrees C total planetary warming.
Worst of all, this utterly preventable catastrophe is probably irreversible on a time-scale of centuries, and thus threatens the health and well-being of our children, their children, and the next 50 generations.
A trillion-dollar climate rescue package would put us on the path to avert these catastrophic outcomes, jump-start the transition to a clean energy economy, while largely paying for itself in energy savings. It would also sharply reduce the $10 to $20 trillion transfer of wealth to the oil exporters that we can expect over the next quarter century alone. Air pollution would drop sharply and millions of jobs would be created.
What happens if we fail to act in time to avert the financial catastrophe that Treasury Secretary Paulson says is now upon us:
- Companies that made very bad investments would lose money, and some would go bankrupt.
- Other countries would probably stop lending us as much money until the shakeout was over.
- For a time, we’d have to stop living beyond our means with borrowed money that pays for massive imports from China and the oil producers.
- More people who bought houses they couldn’t afford would lose them.
- Our economy, which had been boosted unsustainably by phony wealth and a housing Ponzi scheme, would no doubt underperform for a few years until the shakeout was over, causing hardship for tens of millions.
- This might trigger a global economic slowdown, causing hardship for hundreds of millions.
It is insane to glom together a trillion-dollar taxpayer-funded legislative response to this crisis in a few days while utterly ignoring the infinitely graver climate crisis.
At the very least, we should combine whatever financial bailout is deemed necessary with the $100 billion “Green Recovery” effort proposed by the Center for American Progress (where I’m a senior fellow). That would that create 2 million new jobs nationwide in two years and start “the reconstruction of local communities and public infrastructure all across America, setting us on a course for a long-term transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Also, the Green Recovery would also help ensure that whatever dubious financial instruments the taxpayers are stuck with in the Bush Bailout, they have more value because the U.S. economy and its infrastructure — and thus housing values — would be fast-tracked to sustainable health.
Personally, while I don’t much believe anything this administration says, I am willing to believe credible financial experts who have been warning for years about the dangers of unregulated financial system.
But why in God’s name won’t this same administration and the nation’s opinion leaders and conservative politicians and the media and the general public believe the far greater number of far more credible scientific experts who have been warning for years about the dangers of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions.
The pundits now say this trillion-dollar bail-out means that the next president won’t have the resources to pursue the transition to a clean energy economy, assuming the next president actually believes in using the tools of government to achieve that transition. Along the same lines, the European media reported yesterday that “the recent economic downturn could push the European Union to adopt more modest ambitions in its fight against climate change.”
That would be tragic. In a couple of decades, nobody is going to remember this “greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression” because the nation and the world will be desperately devoting all of its economic resources in a last-ditch effort to avoid the catastrophic climate outcomes described above.
People always tell me we’re incapable of taking the steps needed to act on global warming until the impacts are so bad that it is obviously too late to act. And yet, here we are, apparently on the verge of devoting $1 trillion to prevent a financial meltdown — not waiting until another Great Depression to redesign our financial system.
Now it is certainly true that you can’t replace key elements of the entire energy infrastructure as fast as you can redesign key elements of the financial system. As I and many others have argued, though, if we ever did take a World War II-style approach to redesigning our energy system, we could do much of what needs to be done in a couple of decades. But, of course, you have to start. Now.