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Going Bankrupt on Planet Earth: The Debate Subject for the Ages

As expected, the deficit and debt were both discussed in the first presidential debate on domestic policy. However, despite this year’s endless American summer and a devastating drought that won’t leave town, climate change wasn’t. What would you bet that it won’t be a significant topic in the final debate on foreign policy either? Only one conclusion seems reasonable: climate change has no place on this American planet.

So far, both presidential campaigns indicate as much.  To a wave of laughter in the final moments of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney mocked the subject, linking it negatively to the president.  (“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise... is to help you and your family.”)  Obama simply avoided the subject in his.  And that pretty much sums up the situation to date.

Though opinion polls indicate that undecided voters want to hear the candidates’ thoughts on climate change, I’m hardly the first person to note that the subject has gone MIA in the campaign season.  Noam Chomsky, the Nation magazine, Salon’s Andrew Leonard, and Joe Romm of Climate Progress, among others, have all commented strikingly on its disappearance.  But here’s the curious thing: if American debt and deficit happen to be your worry, then climate change should be your subject. 

In response to a question about the deficit in the first debate, Romney typically said, “I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.” Not a bad point really.  Who wants to pile an unbearable burden of debt on future generations who won’t be able to work their way out from under it? 

Here would be my follow-up question, however: In that case, what’s “moral” about doing exactly that in terms of the planet -- ensuring the release of such quantities of greenhouse gasses that the global “debt” will increase staggeringly?  And here’s the kicker: unlike a financial debt, the planet, the atmosphere, nature, physics will not, as Bill McKibben often points out, be prepared to negotiate a deal.  If Argentina or even the U.S. goes bankrupt, there is always an imaginable path back.  If humanity goes bankrupt on this planet, it’s another story entirely.

Maybe, in fact, the debates have it right: climate change isn’t either a domestic or a foreign policy issue. It’s the whole ball of wax. The total thing.

photo credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

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