The deficit and climate change: Two problems that won't go away

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Amid the dysfunction now paralyzing the federal government, here’s some great news: The federal deficit has been falling dramatically.  The most recent report shows that our current deficit is $200 billion dollars less than the Obama administration predicted just three months ago. In fact, since 2009, the deficit has been reduced more in percentage terms than in any four year period since the end of World War II.  This means, of course, we can stop worrying about the federal budget and fully fund all the programs Congress thinks are important. Right?

Before you skip down to the comments section and call me a fool – let me fill in a few more facts. While it is terrific news that the deficit is going down, that’s only part of the story.  There are two other critical pieces of information: Our annual deficits are still really high (about $800 billion) and Politifact.com reports that projections show that “deficits starts creeping up between 2016 and 2023, with that growth driven by entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, rising health care costs and interest on the debt.”

The bottom line is that – while the current reductions are great -- the federal deficit is still a problem, and it’s projected to get worse, threatening the prosperity of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations.

That’s exactly the same situation with climate change.  Just replace “the federal deficit” with “carbon pollution” in the last sentence and you’ve accurately described another menace to future generations of Americans.

The issue comes up because many people are touting recent reductions in U.S. emissions of carbon pollution.  It’s being used as an argument to ignore climate change and reject reasonable limits on the amount of this pollution coming from power plants.  But it’s just as dangerous an attitude we see from those who want us to ignore our budget problems.

While U.S. carbon pollution has been reduced somewhat in the last few years, it is still extremely high.  Earlier this year, we reached a dangerous milestone when scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined that our atmosphere now contains carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million.  That sounds like science jargon, but in plain English it means the Earth is warming quickly and the impacts are probably going to be big and expensive.  The fact is, despite our small dip in emissions, the United States has put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation.

More importantly, we are still polluting the atmosphere at unsafe levels.  Emissions fell mostly because the recent recession slowed economic activity and because of fuel switching from coal to natural gas, but that will only help so much. We are still polluting far more than is safe.

That means we need to take action. Right now there are no limits at all on carbon pollution from power plants. That’s right: power plants are currently allowed to dump as much of this pollution in the air as they want, transferring their costs to the general public. The EPA has proposed establishing reasonable limits, so that we can begin to make long term reductions in the pollution that is causing dangerous changes to our climate.  It’s a smart and necessary approach.

On both the deficit and climate change we are faced with the choice of ignoring the problem, and leaving the consequences to our kids, or taking common sense steps today. Some people find the choices too hard, and grasp for any shred evidence to avoid taking prudent action. But that kind of wishful thinking, on both counts, is irresponsible in the extreme.

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Keith Gaby

Keith Gaby

Keith is Environmental Defense Fund’s climate communications director.

 

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