It’s the Physical Cliff, Stupid

We can lead at Doha and address our economic woes

by John Atcheson

OK.  There’s the fiscal cliff – a self-inflicted economic hotfoot, but nothing irrevocable.

Then there’s the physical cliff – the remorseless warming of our planet driven by human emissions and the laws of physics, already irrevocable, and drifting toward a full-scale planetary disaster of biblical proportions if we don’t take drastic actions.

As the world meets at Doha, Qatar for yet another attempt to reign in global warming, guess which one the press, Congress, pundits, the president and other assorted beltway seers are obsessing on?

You got it.  The fiscal cliff.

And while the fiscal cliff could hurt many people for an election cycle or two, its effects are limited in time and geography, and it is easily avoided using popular policies, assuming a little guts and leadership from Democrats and the President.

Global warming, on the other hand, is … well … global.  We’re already locked into severe adverse consequences for centuries, and scientists believe that unless we do something drastic and soon, it is likely to trigger feedbacks which make the world warmer than any of our models suggest.  Ultimately, over the long term, methane releases from clathrates and permafrost could become self-reinforcing, proceeding on their own power and raising temperatures far higher than anything the Earth has experienced in over 55 million years and keeping them there for eons.

The litany of horror the physical cliff would create is long and dire.  Extinction of half of all species, sea levels rising continuously for centuries, a billion refugees by 2050, record droughts, expanding deserts, famine, epic storms, as many as a billion deaths … on and on and on.

The fiscal cliff?  Certainly it could impose hardships on people.  The enforced austerity would likely do here in the US, what it is doing in Europe – cause a deep and serious recession.  But this would be reversible.  We’d need only quit swallowing Republican talking points about austerity, government incompetence, and the mythical power of the private sector to confer prosperity by pure serendipity … to turn our economy around.

If we’re smart, the policies we use to cut greenhouse gasses could cut the deficit, create jobs and save the economy while saving the world.

As we go into the Doha talks you’ll hear conservatives saying we can’t afford to tackle climate change while the economy is down, because cutting fossil fuel use would hurt our economy.

But here’s the thing.  If we’re smart, the policies we use to cut greenhouse gasses could cut the deficit, create jobs and save the economy while saving the world.

For example, clean energy investments create three times as many jobs per dollar than spending on fossil fuel does. And as more people work, the economy flourishes, tax revenue goes up, and government expenditures go down.  Which of course, cuts deficits.  So jobs go up while emissions go down.

And a modest carbon tax would raise as much as $1.25 trillion in revenue over the next decade, while cutting carbon.

Given this reality, every dollar we spend on fossil fuels at the expense of clean energy, actually destroys jobs and costs us money.

You’d think, given this reality and the mandate Democrats got in the recent election, the President would be putting together a strategy that uses increased taxes on the rich, and cuts to fossil fuel subsidies to fund investments in clean energy infrastructure.  Not only would this create jobs, but it would position the US to be a leader in the manufacture of clean energy infrastructure and hardware – the technology of the 21st Century.

And then there’s that save the world thing.

Yet shortly after the election, Obama had this to say about climate change and the economic crisis:

Understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.

Really, Mr. President?  Business leaders know better.   Here’s what a GE Vice President had to say about this false dichotomy:

There’s this theory that you have to pick one: economics or environmental performance. That’s nonsense. Innovation is the way you can have both.

Last year clean energy technology generated more than a trillion dollars to our economy.  Next year it will exceed that.  And prices for renewable energy are plummeting, while the cost of oil and coal is going up.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that if you want jobs, growth and tax revenue, you want to put your money into clean energy.

But it does take leadership and a little political courage to take on the new axis of stupidity and greed formed by the Republican Party and fossil fuel interests.

Doha will mark a turning point in history.  The path we take will define our future.  Down one path is devastation, widespread misery, and irrevocable loss.  Down the other is prosperity and a sustainable world.

The choice is ours. The time is now.  History will hardly note what we did with the fiscal cliff, but if we fail to address the physical cliff, we will be judged and found wanting.


John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on


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