Why the Debt Crisis Has Trumped the Climate Crisis—at Least in D.C.

It’s telling that of two long-term challenges—each of which would demand some sacrifice now—our political and media culture has chosen to focus so overwhelmingly on debt.

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Mark Wilson/Getty

Erskine Bowles, left, and Alan Simpson at the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hearings.

To a certain group of Americans, the United States—neigh, the world—faces an existential crisis, one that threatens the prosperity and even stability of the future. This problem is so big and so frightening that solving it must be the government’s singular priority. It doesn’t matter that the very drastic steps needed to address the issue are likely to cause palpable economic pain in the short term—pain likely to be borne by the poorest and most vulnerable among us. It doesn’t matter that many experts doubt how serious this subject is, and worry that the solution could cause more trouble than the problem itself. Simply by expressing doubt, those dissenters prove themselves to be fundamentally unserious extremists—and they must be shouted down. There’s no time to waste with debate. Something must be done!

If you read the newspaper or watch the cable shows, you know the problem I’m talking about. It’s the metastasizing federal debt, and to a significant slice of elite Washington—and most of the Republican party—reducing that debt chiefly through drastic spending cuts trumps every other problem facing the country today. That fear is the reason why the political parties find themselves unable to head off the looming budget sequestration, that series of automatic hatchet cuts to government spending amounting to $1.2 trillion over 10 years. It’s the reason why our government seems to be lurching from one fiscal crisis to another. But to debt hardliners, there can be no negotiation—and dissenters like the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman must be defeated. It’s telling that deficit scolds have throwing around the term “debt deniers” to describe their apostate opponents—there’s even an @debtdeniers Twitter account—as if debt skeptics are trying to deny a scientific reality when they question the need for deep and immediate austerity.

The term “denier” should sound familiar to those who follow the climate wars. It’s a cudgel used against those who question the vast—it must be said—scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real and dangerous. But it’s not only similarity with the debt war. For climate hawks, global warming is an existential threat to the United States and to the rest of the world. If we fail to take strong action to reduce carbon emissions, we risk the prosperity and even survival of the future. There is no threat, no issue more important, and we should be willing to ensure short-term economic pain if necessary to head off catastrophe. The climate deniers are dangerous, and they must be defeated.

There are differences, of course, between the climate wars and the debt battles. I think climate hawks have a much stronger case than deficit scolds, one grounded in science, even if climate advocates can sometimes overstate the strength of their case, and downplay the costs that would come with beating global warming. But the real difference is political power and media influence.

Good luck turning on a cable news show without getting an earful from one deficit scold or another. And while Fox News may lead the league in deficit fear-mongering, it’s not alone-see MSNBC morning show anchor and moderate Republican Joe Scarborough, a hardline deficit hawk, bringing knives to gun fights with Krugman*. As for actual power—as opposed to Nielsen share—there can be little doubt that Washington is mostly controlled by people who have become obsessed by American I.O.U.s. The partisan difference is in how and where we’ll cut, not whether the red ink is a very, very serious problem. Just look at the bipartisan duo of Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erksine Bowles, who by the time you read this have probably publicized another plan to slash the deficit through spending cuts and revenue increases and more spending cuts. The chairmen of Fix the Debt, the group that coined “debt deniers,” include Democrat Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, and the former Republican Senator Judd Gregg. In politically polarized Washington, debt reduction is about as bipartisan as apple pie and the sun rising in the East.

But climate change doesn’t quite have the same political or media firepower. Trust me, I know about the latter—barring the occasional geographically-targeted superstorm, it’s become pretty hard to clear out dead tree space for a climate change story. The mainstream media, most of the time, has other things to worry about—like the debt—and there’s no equivalent to the sheer volume of cable news fear dedicated to the deficit. Politically, forget about it. The Republican Party chiefly does not acknowledge the existence of global warming—full stop. Most Democrats and the White House feel differently, but while Obama has been more vocal about climate change since he secured reelection—funny, that—it remains to be seen what he will actually do, and what political price he’d be willing to pay.

Societies are like people—we only have so much attention to disperse, and what we choose to focus that attention on defines us. It’s telling that of two long-term challenges—each of which would demand some sacrifice now—our political and media culture has chosen to focus so overwhelmingly on debt. Be it fiscal or environmental, we’re still going to owe.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer for TIME, covering energy and the environment.  You can find more of his articles here and on science.time.com.

23 comments
cent-fan
cent-fan

It's a case of the politics of "us" against "them".  In a fiscal fight it's always possible to point at money "wasted" as opposed to money spent to "improve" everything (or destroy everything that isn't us) but in a climate fight no one is going to argue that power plants should keep ticking but cars should drop out of sight.  It's either turn off most of the lights or ignore it and hope it goes away.  Everyone agrees that politically for now it's easiest to ignore it until the lights go out on their own.

GeraldWilhite
GeraldWilhite

I believe you are very wrong. Climate change doesn't lack enough "firepower", as you suggest. The problem is that climate change has recently been crippled by news that severely undercuts its scientific credibility. Most climate scientist now recognize that there has been no global warming for well over 15 years. Even IPCC Chairman Pachauri agrees (see link below), and even Jim Hansen grudgingly admits that global warming has stalled.

With CO2 emissions going up 8% over the same period, the AGW hypothesis has been called into serious question. Many scientist say AGW is in fact now falsified. Pachauri says global warming may resume in 20 years. Others say, "It's the sun, stupid."  

All this is well known in Europe, but the US main stream media has mysteriously tried to ignore and bury the story.

See: http://www.thegwpf.org/ipcc-head-pachauri-acknowledges-global-warming-standstill/


MrBenGhazi
MrBenGhazi

Don't think for a second that the position politicians are taking on the national debt is anything other than jockeying for poll points come next election. If people cared more about the weather than the value of their house or retirement funds, the politicians would be talking about the weather.

reallife
reallife

we must deflect...bzzzz  bzzzzz .... we must deflect  bzzz  bzzzzzz   change the subject....   bzzz bzzzzzz ..... our queen is being attacked .....  bzzz   bzzzzzzzz bzzzzzzz



fitty_three
fitty_three

There is no question in my mind (there never was), but I've noticed that the spring migration has already completed about four days ago here in the Seattle area.

The birds do not respond haphazardly to every rumor out there.  I've been here 53 of my 59 years and this is about two weeks sooner than I've ever seen them arrive before - and - keep in mind that these birds are migrating from somewhere south of her.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Our congress is spinning in circles. That's what they do best. Anything else would require something they're not hired to do by their big donors. This won't change until the people clearly tells the GOP and especially the tea party to go fudge themselves. And if you look at poll after poll we're about to do just that.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Neigh??? Is the certain group of Americans horses?

neigh  

/nā/

Noun

A characteristic high-pitched sound uttered by a horse.


KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

I would submit that Bryan Walsh doesn't have a clue regarding the science of climate change. Most reporters are like the CNN anchorette who wonder if the asteroid that recently passed by Earth was related to global warming. Earth Day was founded by socialists, and socialists found refuge in the green movement after the red movement fell apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is no accident that Gorbachev, once the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, now heads an international environmental group.

TyPollard
TyPollard

"I think climate hawks have a much stronger case than deficit scolds, one grounded in science,..."


Um, ya think?

jmac
jmac

"Be it fiscal or environmental"     --   the press and the media are going to continue false equivalency.   It's difficult to call a spade a spade.  Nigh impossible.  "Funny that."  

You had your chance on climate change.   False equivalency killed it.  

fitty_three
fitty_three

Do you know how much energy it takes to turn ice into water?

<tick, tock, tick, tock>

fitty_three
fitty_three

...south of here.

Sorry guys, I wasn't referring to groeny.  He is a girly man though...

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@53_3 Now there's a scientific approach to determining that there is global warming! South of her what?

fitty_three
fitty_three

@KevinGroenhagen  

I'd watch those rocks from space, groeny.

You are the first person I've ever heard actually propose that asteroids and global warming are related.

jmac
jmac

@KevinGroenhagen It is no accident that your side is against anything to do with science.   It took the Catholic church a long time to admit that the sun doesn't circle the earth.  We know which side churches are on.  The LEADERS of your party are still hesitant to admit the earth is older than 6,000 years.  Reporters need to hammer that home.  One side is brain dead.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out.  All we need is  reporting - not interviewing one of five scientists who's on one side and equating him to 99,000 scientist on the other side.  I  quit the Financial Times when they had the audacity to interview Inhofe on climate change.  Good grief.  The man thinks God controls the climate.  

fitty_three
fitty_three

Tell me about carbon dioxide, Herr Professor.

KevinGroenhagen
KevinGroenhagen

@jmac@KevinGroenhagen " It is no accident that your side is against anything to do with science."

That's moronic, which is par for the course with you. And then there is Obama the Incompetent with his good luck charms. Now there's a believer in science.

http://www.time.com/time/politics/whitehouse/photos/0,27424,1811278,00.html

Now if one side has all the facts concerning global warming, why do they feel it's necessary to fudge the facts, as Al Gore continuously does and as the Climatic Research Unit did?