Of Red Ink and the Greenhouse

AS images of a fragile planet under siege increase the public resolve to act, international negotiations to combat greenhouse gas emissions will soon start. While the cold war painfully divided the world, a war on global warming may seem a common challenge on which most people can pull together. Margaret Thatcher in May, followed by a reluctant George Bush at the Houston summit, have formally endorsed talks on reducing greenhouse gases. Yet significant action is unlikely anytime soon - for reasons deeper than Darman-Sununu opposition. Ironically, greenhouse politics may turn out to resemble, of all things, budget deficit politics: nearly everyone rates the deficit on a scale from displeasing to demonic, yet it persists. As Earth Day recedes into the past and the budget talks again stretch into the future, those interested in major greenhouse action might ponder this improbable analogy.

While we are variously mesmerized by figures like Manuel Noriega, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, or Saddam Hussein, both carbon emissions and red ink inexorably accumulate in the international accounts. Since the consequences are building for next year or next generation, public concern can wax and wane, often piqued by weakly linked events. Black Monday of 1987, hardly the product of fiscal profligacy, set off a brief anti-deficit frenzy; calmer markets took the pressure off. Medical waste and the Exxon Valdez combined with scorching summers and droughts - quite possibly random fluctuations - to raise greenhouse fears; a few benign seasons may cool concerns.

This is not just fickle public attention. Some respectable and vocal expert opinion sees value, such as economic stimulus, in the deficit, and doubts its long-term harm. While the greenhouse effect threatens sea level rise, weather extremes, and extinct species, respectable scientists likewise point to large uncertainties about the nature, timing, size, and distribution of the consequences; besides, Massachusetts and Siberia might warm up. Professional judgment on deficits and warming will always contain divisions, and a media committed to ``balance'' will showcase ``both sides.''

On each front as well, we should expect surprises that will be said to make the problem go away. Remember how the mounting social security surplus was ``discovered''; supposedly that ended our deficit worries (for awhile). Likewise, scientists who study global warming wonder whether a hotter world may mean more water vapor and cloud cover - that may reflect away sunlight and even cool things down. A few months back, satellite records showed ``no global warming'' during the last 10 years. Expect a parade of such surprises - brandished by dissenters as reasons for complacency - while debts and emissions quietly climb. (Of course, surprises can go the other way: remember the discovery of the ``ozone hole.'')

The public morality plays for both problems also have drearily similar scripts. Committed advocates warn of imminent fiscal and climate disaster from selfish, shortsighted excess. Their solution: Remake politics. Curmudgeonly contrarians brand the whole thing overblown doomsaying. Their cure: Eschew public action, let the magic market wave its wand. In this theological swirl, wise policy is obscured for both the environment and the economy.

If they strike with force, economic and climate woes will hurt nearly everyone. Yet the immediate costs of each preventive measure - like a program cut or a more expensive industrial process - would mainly fall on a specific group. Such smaller groups won't want to pay the full tab now of providing uncertain future benefits for all, and they can mobilize to block action.

In the deficit arena, see how efforts to raise taxes or cut entitlements have fared. So too with the climate. The recently beefed-up 1987 Montreal treaty to halve chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions by century's end offers real hope but contains a sobering lesson about blocking power and negotiating international treaties.

The last Economic Report of the President estimates the United States costs of compliance with the Montreal accord at $2.7 billion. That's one measure of the costs motivating skeptical policymakers and corporate opponents of the treaty.

Now $2.7 billion is certainly a high cost, but the same report cites the costs of an anti-greenhouse 20 percent carbon dioxide cut at between $800 billion and $3.6 trillion. If these figures are even remotely accurate, they suggest that those concerned by large-scale greenhouse control (policy skeptics, coal and oil companies, automakers, etc.) would have an economic motivation for opposition literally hundreds of times stronger than the CFC industry had for fighting and delaying the ozone treaty for years.

Greenhouse activists should take note: Unlike those who have blocked real deficit cuts, the powerful coalitions that will arise to resist major greenhouse action are now mostly asleep. Keep an eye on Canada, a country in the rhetorical vanguard of greenhouse concern. If serious actions are proposed, however, will the Canada that pumps oil, cuts forests, and builds cars, really just go along? And are those Brazilians who profit from burning rain forests really going to buy arguments about future world benefits? If only a few countries bear the preventive burden, others will get a free ride. Since no country wants to pay first and end up the sucker, the list of real climate volunteers will be short. Much more complex and time-consuming ``trades'' will be required (e.g., technology and resource transfers, debt-for-nature swaps).

Moreover, some actions that worsen the deficit or add greenhouse gases may be well worth it - despite adverse effects. Investing more in education, R&D, and infrastructure will swell budgets (and deficits, absent extra taxes). The least cost route to much third-world development will seem energy-inefficient and carbon intensive. The same will be true of the economic growth that Eastern Europe must have to secure its political gains. Yet beyond such truly hard cases, special pleaders will cynically invoke ``higher priorities'' to resist greenhouse action.

Despite these obstacles, international greenhouse action is likely soon in the form of a ``framework convention,'' with the specifics to be negotiated later. Such a framework may, however, look a lot like the Gramm-Rudman deficit ``solution'': widely trumpeted targets and timetables that allow politicians to declare victory, go home, and fiddle the numbers.

So, when it comes to making common cause in a collective greenhouse war, think of the persistent deficit that nobody wants. Both problems are cumulative, quiet, contested, in and out of mind. Both compete with other priorities, and attract phony solutions. Costly action seems to promise future benefits for all, but faces blocking coalitions today.

Similar does not mean the same. The greenhouse problem is potentially of a different order than the deficit, is far longer term, and has causes and effects that are vastly less certain. Its apparent cure would bite far deeper into industrial practice, transportation, agriculture, patterns of living, and development. It would take action among many nations, not just one.

But the prospect of eco-catastrophe is blacker than econo-catastrophe. And few people personally experience the deficit while most feel the weather and imagine their children doing the same. Political advocacy aside, only government action can reduce the deficit. Yet the individual who chooses to walk rather than drive, or to turn down the heat, forges a personal link to greenhouse solutions.

Effective sustained action on both problems requires informed and deep changes in public convictions. For example, the defense contribution to the deficit is dropping as the public digests the meaning of Gorbachev and Eastern Europe. Likewise, if greenhouse science solidifies, if a future-looking consensus emerges that the risks are too high compared with the vast costs of mitigation, serious steps could be taken.

But maybe this common global challenge won't be so difficult. After all, by making the right assumptions, keeping enough of the S&L bailout off the budget, adding in the social security surplus (the Baby Boomers' retirement fund), rubberizing the Gramm-Rudman ``requirements,'' they say (again) that the deficit will dwindle to a fiscal farthing. It may not be so hard to ``deal with the greenhouse'' either.

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