The day after his inauguration, President Barack Obama awoke to find himself in charge of a government that is spending 25% of gross domestic product but taking in only 17%. At least, that’s what the Congressional Budget Office estimates. The trillion-dollar gap in federal finances results from the worst economic crisis of Mr. Obama’s lifetime — a crisis that is destined to obliterate much of the domestic agenda on which he campaigned for the presidency.
Over the last 18 months, America’s households have lost a quarter of their net worth, and the federal government has piled up huge debts trying to stave off a collapse of the financial system. Now, just as the new president prepares to borrow even more money for a stimulus package, foreign lenders such as China and South Korea (who purchased 80% of federal debt in recent years) are signaling that they may not want any more of Washington’s I.O.U.’s. So goals like universal healthcare and energy independence will have to wait, because Washington is broke.
This presents a dilemma for proponents of quick action on climate change. Many scientists believe that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will soon bring the earth to the brink of ecological catastrophe, but it’s hard to get voters interested in environmental problems when the economy is in trouble. Voters may decry the fact that eight gigatons of carbon are being spewed into the atmosphere from human sources each year, but when the economy falters they pray that some of that carbon will keep coming out of smokestacks at the factories where they work. You can’t expect them to worry about melting icecaps when they’re in danger of losing their jobs and their homes.
If the Obama Administration pushes a costly agenda of climate-change measures in the midst of the biggest financial meltdown in 80 years, it will quickly lose ground with the public. Many of the claimed economic benefits from investing in a “green” economy depend on subsidies the Treasury can no longer afford. Even the initiatives that stand up to rigorous cost-benefit analysis, like making federal buildings more energy-efficient, will take many years before they produce net savings.
To make matters worse, there is no consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. A Rasmussen public-opinion poll released on the eve of the inauguration found that the number of voters who think human actions cause global warming is receding, with a larger number saying climate change is “the result of long-term planetary trends.” A 46% plurality of respondents also said there is a direct conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.
What the new administration needs is climate-change initiatives that don’t require much money to pursue. Northrop Grumman chief executive Ron Sugar, himself a scientist, has one such idea. Sugar says the government should network together the climate-change data being collected by dozens of satellites and other sensors scattered around the world. The information would be integrated and analyzed, then disseminated to regional centers for specific applications. The virtue of this idea is that it adds value through better utilization of existing assets, rather than demanding vast new outlays. Sugar’s idea won’t solve global warming, but it will help policymakers and scientists get a better understanding of the problem — an essential first step in framing climate-change initiatives that are affordable.
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