Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Global Dimming

The United States is running up record deficits and the world environment is in great peril. This is what my twelve year old daughter will face as an adult, long after I am gone from this earth.

On Wednesday it was announced that the United States budget deficit for fiscal year 2009 is projected at nearly $1.2 trillion; that is t-r-i-l-l-i-o-n. This is almost three times the previous record, also held by President George W. Bush. When President Bush took office the total U.S. debt was about $5.7 trillion. Just eight years later it is now about $10.6 trillion, due to increased government spending (including two wars), tax cuts and the recession.

If you remember, President Bush pledged to balance the budget by 2012. Now, if the Bush recession eases, economists are projecting a $775 billion budget deficit in fiscal 2010. And they don't project a balanced budget until 2019. That's another decade of deficits!

The sizable deficit means that the government has to borrow an enormous amount of money to keep the lights on. Of course, credit markets are such that it is harder and more expensive for the government to raise money. In the past foreign governments and wealthy investors filled the gap, but the worldwide economic collapse is now a major impediment. And the more money we borrow, and the more the deficit grows, the larger the burden for my daughter and her children. Today her share of the deficit is about $35,000!

So, as hard as it is to swallow, Congress has no choice but to pass a stimulus plan to end the recession. The cost will be added to the already approved government bailouts that targeted certain key financial institutions and industries. It is encouraging that President-elect Barack Obama has appointed a "chief performance officer" to look for savings and budget cuts. Nancy Killefer is an experienced hand from the highly regarded corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where they know how to streamline companies and cut waste and fat. Nonetheless, Americans will face a severe challenge for decades to come.

While the world is roiling in the midst of a financial crisis, I recently saw some news that only compounds global problems exponentially. In an outstanding documentary, PBS's science series, called Nova, provided insight into a phenomenon called "global dimming" and its affects on global warming. Global dimming occurs when the sun's energy is partially blocked largely by man-made particulates and then reflected back into space. This reduces water evaporation, alters weather patterns and lowers the earth's surface temperature. Global dimming has accelerated over the past three decades, and now leading developed countries have taken measures to reduce particulate so this growth trend is flattening out.

Meanwhile, most scientists agree that so-called greenhouse gases are causing the earth's temperature to dramatically rise. Greenland's glaciers are melting and the seas are rising. By combining the affects of global warming and global dimming scientists have come to an alarming conclusion. It appears that global dimming has been "masking" the global warming problem, that the earth's surface temperature would be much higher were it not for global dimming. And the more we solve the first problem, the more we may contribute to the other unless both are dealt with equally and urgently. If nothing is done to save the climate, some scientists warn that much of life will be destroyed and the earth will be a very different place by the time my daughter reaches my age.

Up to now long term well-being has taken a back seat to short term gains when it comes to the economy and the environment. Man has played a Ponzi scheme with our children's lives. We are borrowing against their future and quickly destroying their world. Instead of wondering how they will deal with all these problems, today we should be acting with great urgency and courage to assure their survival and happiness. Indeed, this is the time, this is the moment Mr. Obama.

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