We need to act on climate change because we owe future generations a livable environment.
These days, politicians are constantly invoking the interests of “our grandchildren” in arguments against deficit spending. If they really care about future generations, though, they should support legislation to rein in greenhouse gas emissions now.
At least two dozen senators have referred, in Senate session this year, to government debt as an unconscionable burden on “our grandchildren.” More than two-thirds of these same senators, however, just voted for a Senate bill that would have stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, with no alternative in place.
The opponents of deficit spending are almost completely wrong on the economics. The U.S. government can borrow at very low interest rates. As economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman estimates, the annual interest payment on $1 trillion the government borrows today amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of GDP.
Though they exaggerate the burden of the government debt, the deficit hawks are right that we have a sacred duty to future generations. Our grandchildren have no way to make their voices heard, so we have the power to put our own interests ahead of theirs, if we choose. Our willingness to make some sacrifices for the sake of the generations that follow us, then, is a test of our virtue.
Climate change is a grave threat to future generations. Climate scientists predict harms that include rising sea levels and flooded coastal areas, increased extreme weather events (like severe hurricanes), and the disruption of existing ecosystems.
The consensus among climate scientists firmly establishes links between our combustion of fossil fuels and rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and between those rising concentrations and climate change. It would be unconscionably self-serving to ignore the science, go on burning fossil fuels as we have up to now, and hope against hope that everything will turn out fine.
One might compare climate change denial to gambling the future at a roulette wheel when you don’t know the likelihood of merely losing your shirt versus losing the family house.
But it’s really much worse than that.
Those who won’t face up to the need for serious action now are gambling the future not only of “our” grandchildren in this country but also other people’s grandchildren all over the world.
And they are putting the interests of the best-off today, who enjoy most of the benefits from producing and consuming fossil fuels, ahead of the worst-off tomorrow, who will bear most of the burdens.
We have a choice: We can pull a fast one on future generations, or we can take serious action, now, on climate change.
Alejandro Reuss is an economist and historian and a frequent contributor to Dollars & Sense magazine (dollarsandsense.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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