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In his November 14 press conference president Obama made a few brief comments about global warming:

“There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices and understandably, you know, I think right now the American people have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message somehow is that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anyone’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that. If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.”

 

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, almost everything.

Yes, the most effective way to slow climate change is to shrink the economy. That statement is inconvenient as hell, but it’s true. Sure, efficiency and renewable energy can nibble around the edges of our carbon emissions, but just three or four percent economic growth per year would be sufficient to cancel out any gains we’d be likely to achieve with solar panels and electric cars. Understandably, this makes the post-carbon transition a tough sell.

But here’s what the president didn’t say—and it makes all the difference in the world: Real economic growth will be elusive anyway. For the past couple of years we’ve been enjoying a species of faux growth based on massive injections of cash from the Fed and $100 billion a month in Federal deficit spending. Take those away and the anemic residue of growth we’ve been enjoying will go too (which is why so many analysts are frightened of the fiscal cliff). Indeed, economic growth has been waving a long, slow goodbye since 1980: in the past three decades, total debt in the US has expanded at three times the rate of GDP growth. We’ve been hocking our grandkids’ future for a little more spending money today. In recent years, the amount of GDP growth we’ve gotten per dollar in new debt has declined. Whether the debt-for-growth swap ever made sense, the fact is it’s succumbing to the law of diminishing returns.

But it gets worse. The costs of climate change are mounting. With more record droughts and massive storms we’ll see those costs mushrooming to the point where they are equal to or greater than the amount of economic growth the U.S. has been clocking per annum. That’s right, if we decide to forget climate change in order to go for the growth, Mother Nature will make sure whatever growth we do see comes mostly from spending on disaster recovery.

So the real trade-off, the real choice we face, is not between climate protection on one hand and economic growth on the other. It’s between planned economic contraction (with government managing the post-carbon transition through infrastructure investment and useful make-work programs) as a possible but unlikely strategy, and unplanned, unmanaged economic and environmental collapse as our default scenario.

Mainstream environmental organizations don’t want to mention any of this because they don’t want to be pilloried as “anti-growth” or “socialist” by right-wing politicians and powerful free-market think tanks. The president won’t touch it with a forty-foot pole, for the same reasons.

Some of us are under no such constraint. We can tell it like it is—and we might as well do so. What do we have to lose, other than illusions?

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