The Really, Really Bad Debt


It’s time for a reality check in the contentious debate over the investments President Obama has proposed to fight global climate change and build a new energy economy.

As Ken Burns once put it, “we need a little more Pluribus and a little less Unum” in the United States these days. Instead, a newly outraged Outrage Class is firing bullets made of silly putty, hoping some will stick to the new President.

Here are some prominent current examples:

Burdening Our Children With Debt
: A frequent argument from fiscal conservatives is that borrowing money to build a new energy economy – including the investments contained in President Obama’s stimulus package and his 2010 budget proposal -- will place an unconscionable debt on our children. Reacting to deficit projections from the Obama budget, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “We simply cannot continue to mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future to pay for bigger and more costly government.”

But the debt we should be most concerned about is our carbon debt. It’s a far more serious threat to future generations. Researchers at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently concluded that even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide now, the impact of climate change from emissions already in the atmosphere will have “legacies that will irreversibly change the plant” with damages continuing for 1,000 years. Among them are coastal inundation, drought, desertification, wild fires and disruptions to agriculture. They all carry big economic costs that will undermine our kids’ prosperity as well as their health, safety and quality of life.

We all agree that it would be far better to pay cash up front to build the green economy, but past Congresses and the past Administration have left the country broke. The President’s response to Boehner was right on target: “What we will not cut are investments that will lead to real growth and prosperity over the long term.”

Not making those investments now will burden our children with and irreversible carbon debt that sentences them to hundreds of years of tragically negative returns. The carbon debt is by far the worst curse.