I wrote this article for the Huffington Post. It can be seen in its original context here.
There are a lot of similarities between the current financial crisis and the climate crisis, except for the urgency with which the two are being addressed. On the one hand, the present state of the financial markets hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930’s; on the other, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in on pace to reach levels not seen in the last 500,000 years. There is a near consensus among economists that something needs to be done to stabilize financial markets, with the only debate being about how best to do that. Likewise, there is a near consensus among scientists that climate change is happening, is man-made and must be addressed, with the only debate centering around the cost of mitigation and adaptation, as well as the implication of various scenarios (e.g., how much sea level rise at a given CO2 level).
In response to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other storied financial institutions, both Democrats and Republicans have set aside their traditional core “beliefs” (not that it’s hard for them to set those beliefs aside), with Republicans temporarily forgetting about their hatred of government regulation, and the Democrats doing away with their dislike of giving a government official unlimited powers-in this case the Treasury Secretary (I know, they did the same with Bush after 9/11; I’ll get to that in a moment). And despite the fact that there has recently been some opposition from both sides to the current proposal for a $700 billion bailout plan, in all likelihood the plan will pass, albeit with some minor changes.
What we are seeing, then, is that our country responds swiftly and decisively–we can argue if it is also wisely and prudently–to crises of an immediate nature. Much as we are currently doing, our response to 9/11 was to turn to President Bush and say “do what you need to do to fight the terrorists; here’s a blank check, now exact revenge and keep us safe.” Of course, neither the financial crisis, nor 9/11 happened out of the blue: they resulted from long-term trends and missed opportunities to avert disaster (let’s not forget the famous memo that Bush ignored titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S.).
Well, we are in the midst of a brewing climate crisis, and no one but the scientific community is paying much attention to it. Unlike 9/11 or the bankruptcy of an investment firm, of course, the climate crisis won’t come to a head in a single, news-making moment; rather, it will build slowly, unleashing feedback loops that will cause more drought, more flooding, higher sea levels, more disease, and other serious, global impacts. But perhaps more importantly, unlike an economic depression, that a wealthy country like the U.S. can always recover from with a concerted effort and smart policies, it is very possible to reach a tipping point on the climate issue beyond which we don’t know what will happen, and the results of which may be irreversible. So what we are dealing with is not only disaster in the making, it is a potentially undoable disaster, yet one that could also be easily avoided. In fact, while avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will be costly and difficult, it will also focus our nation and have innumerable other benefits for America and the world.
In other words, what we need is a $700 billion bailout for the climate. We need Democrats and Republicans to again set aside their core beliefs–be that a fear of big government or a reluctance to offend unions. We need congress to turn to the president–not this one, but there is reason to believe that our next Commander in Chief will take leadership on this issue–and say, “here is a check for fighting the war on climate change, not a blank check, but one that you can use as you see fit provided that the investments help retool the American economy for being a leader in the green revolution; that the process be open and transparent; that the money be used for initiatives that are truly green (e.g., no biofuels from palm plantations in Indonesia); that lobbyists and corporate influences be kept out of the process; and that all stakeholders are brought to the table for a discussion on how best to move forward.”
At the same time, the Congress needs to enact emergency legislation to kick start this revolution, starting by renewing the tax credits for wind and solar, but then going much further to ensure that companies moving the green agenda forward are rewarded, and those holding the green agenda back suffer and go out of business. Imagine something like a stimulus package for companies trying to bring alternative energy, energy efficiency and other related products to market.
If all this seems unrealistic or too costly, keep in mind that before 9/11 no one could have imagined that George Bush would be given carte blanche to start two wars, at an astronomical cost. In addition, who would have thought before this summer that the government would have stepped in to bail out AIG and others? No, as I have argued several times, cost is never the issue when America wants or needs to do something; the question is what political constituency will lobby for or against the initiative. Right now we need everyone to work together so that in addition to a massive bailout for stabilizing the financial markets, we can also pass a massive bailout in order to stabilize the climate.