Economic Crisis? What About the Climate Crisis?

Like many others who have voiced their opinions on this page, I have several misgivings about the $700 billion bailout plan that is being shoved down our throats by Congress and the Bush administration -- not the least of which is whether or not it will even prove effective at stemming the economic downturn. Set aside the moral hazard implications of the plan, and you're still left with what Nouriel Roubini, an economist whose pessimistic outlook on the economy has been consistently vindicated by events, calls a "disgrace":

Thus, the Treasury plan is a disgrace: a bailout of reckless bankers, lenders and investors that provides little direct debt relief to borrowers and financially stressed households and that will come at a very high cost to the US taxpayer. And the plan does nothing to resolve the severe stress in money markets and interbank markets that are now close to a systemic meltdown.

Now I'm no economist -- my understanding of economic theory can best be described as nebulous -- and I am aware that others whose views I hold in high regard, such as Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, have come out in (very) tentative support of the plan (despite having their own deep misgivings), so I won't dwell on its merits.

What I do know, and understand, is that we risk tipping the planet into a perpetual state of runaway climate change if we continue not to act. Two discoveries have recently come to light suggesting that we may be on the verge on entering an unprecedented era of climate change: the release of millions of tons of methane from below the Arctic seabed and the sustained decrease in carbon dioxide uptake by terrestrial ecosystems following anomalously warm years.

The preliminary findings about the potentially large-scale leakage of methane deposits from beneath the Arctic sea are extremely worrisome. Not only is methane about 20-23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but its escape could precipitate a dangerous positive feedback loop -- a "carbon bomb" -- in which a warming climate causes, and is abetted by, the continuous melting of permafrost and release of ever more methane into the atmosphere.

Were we to create such a situation, it would become much more difficult to avert the worst of climate change. Scientists believe that the sudden release of methane in the past was responsible for causing prolonged periods of intense climate change and mass species extinctions.

The other discovery I mentioned, though perhaps less dramatic-sounding, is a critical one as well. It was the first study of its kind to definitively show that terrestrial ecosystems subjected to periods of abnormally high temperatures -- similar to those predicted to happen later this century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- responded by drastically reducing their carbon dioxide uptake, by up to two-thirds, for at least two years.

While it remains to be seen whether this effect applies uniformly to all plant species, it does suggest that science still has much to learn when it comes to climate-ecosystem interactions. What this means for us is that we can't just expect climate change to happen in a vacuum. Sure, we know that the ice caps are melting (and that they could be gone by century's end), that water shortages are on the rise and that species extinctions are likely to accelerate over the coming years. But there are many other things we don't quite understand, or that we take for granted, that could suddenly change -- to our detriment.

There are no easy solutions to this crisis. As our representatives did in trying to push for a bipartisan bailout plan, so must they come together to establish a set of forward-looking policies that mitigates the threat of climate change by ushering in a "clean energy revolution" and by divesting what Al Gore calls our "subprime carbon assets."

Saving our economy from collapse is important, but so should be saving our planet. If we can afford to invest $700 billion in our faltering financial sector, then we can certainly spend as much, if not more, to create a new "green" revolution.