Global Warming and Budget Analogy

Paul KrugmanIn his column today, Paul Krugman argues that we need to stop worrying about the long term budget. Basically, he thinks the opportunity costs are too high. We are in no position to judge what policy ought to be 20 or 30 years from now. What’s more, legislators today can’t constrain what legislators in the future will do. But by focusing on the basically mythical “long term” we are wasting the opportunity to do something about the current jobs crisis. I am, of course, completely in agreement with him. However, he counters an analogy between the long term budget and global warming in a way that is incorrect.

Conservatives are keen to point out the supposed hypocrisy of caring about the uncertain long term effects of global warming but not caring about the uncertain long term effects of budget deficits. Krugman counters the charge of hypocrisy by noting that if we are right, global warming will be a catastrophe. That’s not really true. For one thing, the deficit scolds claim that if we don’t balance the budget right away it will be a catastrophe. The government will collapse in debt and old people will live and then quickly die on the streets. It will be Mad Max in our own lifetimes.

The issue (which I’m sure Krugman knows) is response timing. If it had to, the federal government could balance its budget this year. It could even buy back all of its bonds so it didn’t even have any debt. All of these things would be terrible, but the fact remains: we can fix any budget problem at any time. That is not true of global warming. The lifetime of a molecule of carbon-dioxide is very roughly 75 years. That means if we stopped removing the gas from the ground and putting it in the air, we would still have elevated concentrations for hundreds of years in the future. Unlike with the budget, we cannot “stop on a dime.”

Krugman brings up what I call the Social Security Paradox: in order to stop future benefit cuts, we must cut benefits now. That is the heart of why global warming is not like the federal budget. Doing something now about Social Security doesn’t do much for us in the future given that it is not at all clear there will be a future problem. (Also: if a real problem shows up, maybe we could address it with more tools than the usual conservative obsession of cutting benefits.) Doing something now about global warming will help us in 75 years. Once we release carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere, it is extremely difficult to remove it quickly.

The budget deficit is more like local air pollution. Once cars were prevented from releasing large amounts of carbon-monoxide into the atmosphere, carbon-monoxide pollution ended almost immediately. It helps that CO only lives in the atmosphere for half a year, but the bigger point is that the effect of the gas is local and they quickly move out of urban areas. For the purpose of the greenhouse gases, there is nowhere for them to go other than to be taken up into the soil or oceans. And that’s why global warming is so frightening: once it is clear there is a problem, mitigation is really hard. That isn’t the case with the federal budget.


For more on this, see a short article I wrote last year, A Really Big Problem.

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