The Climate Change Cliff

Budget's can be fixed; the damaged being done to the earth is irreparable.

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Thawing permafrost covering almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere could "significantly amplify global warming" at a time when the world is already struggling to reign in rising greenhouse gases, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.
A poll finds fewer Republicans believe in global warming this year.

The fiscal cliff is a tragic example of an all-too-common malady: managing by living crisis to crisis. In this case, it was almost entirely a self-created crisis, but the underlying financial problems, such as increasing healthcare costs and entitlement spending, have been building for some time. Waiting until things are really, really bad before acting not only does not to prevent crises, but makes them worse when they do happen (a truth my chiropractor has kindly but insistently pointed out to me when I wait until I can only hobble before getting care for my troublesome back).

But finances (and even to some degree, my bad back) can be repaired. We are in far more long-term danger for failing to address climate change.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Last year, temperatures in the continental United States were hotter than they had ever been in more than a century of record-keeping, government scientists found. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described the results (temps last year were, on average, 3.2 degrees higher than the 20th century average) as part of a bigger and longer trend of hotter, drier and more extreme weather. Some of it is the result of weather patterns, but human activity—such as the burning of greenhouse gases—is also to blame, researchers found.

It would almost be easier if the battle over controlling greenhouse gases was merely partisan in nature. In that case, we would only need to wait until a critical mass of environmentalists (and realists) was in control of Congress and the White House. But energy issues are by nature regional. Coal-state lawmakers clash with oil-state representatives, and politicians in regions of the country where the gasoline additive MTBE is made battle with those where ethanol is produced. People in areas with good, efficient public transportation see the value of added government subsidies for trains and subways, while those out West, where people need to drive long distances just to do their work and errands, are car-oriented and more affected by gasoline taxes. It makes it almost impossible to come to agreement on a broad energy plan that will save the earth and those of us who live on it, since lawmakers are, somewhat understandably, determined to protect the parochial interests of their constituents and local industries.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But as superstorm Sandy (and the weather disasters that preceded it) showed, we all end up paying for inaction on climate change. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rightly seized the moment when his state was being devastated by the storm, not only pleading for federal aid to the victims, but pointing out that we can no longer ignore the dangers of global warming.

Finances can ultimately be fixed; money can be borrowed and saved, and budgets can be trimmed and reformed. The earth we have is all we've got. We can't afford to go over that cliff.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.
  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.