Wonkbook: The disaster we refuse to see coming

at 07:36 AM ET, 03/16/2011


A radiation dosimeter indicates 0.6 microsieverts in Shibuya, Tokyo, March 15, 2011. Radiation levels in the city of Maebashi, 100 km (60 miles) north of Tokyo, and in Chiba prefecture, nearer the city, were up to 10 times normal levels, Kyodo news agency said. REUTERS/Kyodo (KYODO)
There are disasters we can’t see coming, and then there are disasters we refuse to see coming. That an earthquake (and tsunami) of biblical proportions would crack open nuclear power plants along the coast of Japan is the sort of catastrophe that’s very difficult to predict. On the other hand, the consequences of a large increase in the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not hard to predict. The precise effects of climate change may be uncertain -- though that does not make them any less dire -- but we know, in a rough way, what will happen: the earth will warm. In fact, it’s already warming. Has been for decades. You can see it clear as day on any graph of global temperatures. You can see it in the record books, too: Of the 10 hottest years on record, nine were in the Aughts, and the last was in 1998.

This is a disaster, however, that we refuse to see coming. On Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up Republican-backed legislation to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Democrats proposed a series of amendments that simply admitted the reality of global warming -- they didn’t require regulation or a carbon tax. Just an admission of the state of the science. Rep. Diana DeGette’s amendment was particularly careful in its language: “’The scientific evidence is compelling’ that elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from anthropogenic emissions ‘are the root cause of recently observed climate change,’” it read. Not one of the 31 Republicans on the committee voted for it, or any of the amendments. Not one. Confronted by one of the most significant threats our planet faces, the 31 House Republicans charged with coordinating America’s response refused to even admit the underlying facts. “I would say it’s not settled,” said Rep. Joe Barton.

So much of what goes wrong on the planet seems unjust. Humans are not to blame for the impersonal whims of tectonic plates, but they nevertheless suffer greatly for them. Global warming, however, is oddly fair: it is a consequence of actions we know that we’re taking, we have been warned of it long in advance and, if are willing to cooperate among nations and marshal our resources and make some hard decisions, we have the tools at our disposal to mount a credible response. But it looks like we will refuse. Which actually is unfair, as those who will pay for our inaction will not be those who made the decision not to act. They’ll be our descendants, and disproportionately the residents of poorer nations that never emitted many greenhouse gases to begin with. For them, the question will be long-since settled. But it will also be much too late.

Top Stories

The House has passed a stopgap spending bill to keep government going through April 8, report Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez: “The House approved a resolution Tuesday that would keep the government running through early April, even as dozens of Republicans signaled that they would no longer support short-term budget fixes. On a 271 to 158 vote, the House approved a stopgap bill that would cut $6 billion from federal programs and keep the government open through April 8. Senate leaders in both parties have said they will pass the bill before Friday, when the measure that is currently funding the government expires. The new temporary measure would be the sixth since the fiscal year began Oct. 1 and the second this month. It may also be the last, given the fraying support for short-term fixes among House Republicans, as well as from President Obama.”

The vote puts John Boehner is a bind, writes Brian Beutler: “the 54 Republicans who voted against the stop-gap legislation put him in an unenviable box: Either he kowtows to his right flank, and pushes initiatives that can’t pass in the Senate; or he abandons them, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has suggested, and passes consensus legislation. The latter option, however, would require significant concessions to win Democratic votes, and further delegitimize himself with the Tea Party base. If he chooses option (b), he will need Democratic votes. And that would abruptly flip the dynamic on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have been riding high since they trounced Democrats in the November elections. If he chooses option (a) -- if he and his party don’t back off their pitched demand to fundamentally reshape the U.S. government -- the consequences they’d hope to avoid -- shutdowns and worse -- will become all but inevitable.”

The public is overwhelmingly opposed to a budget shutdown and polling shows they’d likely blame Republicans, report Dan Balz and Jon Cohen: Large majorities in the poll say a partial shutdown of the federal government would be a ‘bad thing’” but each side squarely blames the other for not compromising in the budget negotiations...Among those who say a government shutdown would be harmful, about twice as many say they would hold the GOP, rather than the president, responsible. A similar question two weeks ago showed that about as many said they would blame Obama as the congressional Republicans for a such a stoppage.” http://wapo.st/h6sYY5

Not a single GOP member of the House Energy Committee will say global warming is real, reports Evan McMorris-Santoro: “Thirty-one Republicans on the House Energy And Commerce Committee -- the entire Republican contingent on the panel -- declined on Tuesday to vote in support of the very idea that climate change exists. Democrats on the panel had suggested three amendments that said climate change is a real thing, is caused by humans and has potentially dire consequences for the future. The amendments came on a Republican bill to block the EPA from offering regulations to mitigate the results of global climate shifts. The global scientific community is in near unanimous agreement that climate change is real, and that humans contribute to it.”

The Fed is staying the course on monetary policy, reports Neil Irwin: “As financial markets reeled around the globe, the Federal Reserve embraced continuity in its policies Tuesday, affirming its plans to keep interest rates low and to continue buying bonds to support the economy. The Fed’s policy committee met against a backdrop of economic dangers from Japan, the Middle East and Europe. The U.S. economy, however, is ‘on a firmer footing,’ Fed officials said after the meeting, and conditions in the job market ‘appear to be improving gradually.’ Still, the officials also said they will be paying close attention to rising prices for oil and other commodities. The new economic assessment is an upgrade from January’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.”

Cover song interlude: Iron And Wine plays “One More Try” by George Michael.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: There’s bipartisan support in Congress for an “infrastructure bank”; a bill amending health reform to help health insurance brokers is set to be introduced; Obama’s economic and political teams are split on Social Security; MS Gov. Haley Barbour is breaking with his party on defense cuts; and a baby who hates it when people blow their noses.

Economy

GOP presidential candidate and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour wants defense cuts and an Afghanistan drawdown, reports Ben Smith: “’Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon,’ Barbour said. ‘We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.’”

Congratulations, Haley: You get Wonkbook’s first “quote of the day” award!

A proposal for an “infrastructure bank” is gaining steam in Congress, reports Abby Phillip: “A bipartisan group of senators appears to be moving forward with an ‘infrastructure bank’ proposal, though it is slightly different from the one that President Obama proposed in his 2012 budget. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and Sen. Mark Warner (R-Va.) teamed up on Tuesday with the dynamic duo of U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to introduce the BUILD Act, which would establish a loan fund to leverage federal money for infrastructure investments. ‘We’re here today because we refuse to be second,’ Kerry said at a press conference introducing the legislation.”

Unemployment is much higher if one takes into account workers who have stopped searching for jobs: http://wapo.st/hFXYYk

Tim Geithner is defending the Consumer Financial Protection Agency’s role in the mortgage settlement, reports Brady Dennis: “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pushed back Tuesday against lawmakers questioning the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau role in negotiating a settlement with mortgage servicing firms whose shoddy practices and flawed foreclosure paperwork came to light last fall. Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that the CFPB should not participate in the talks because it has no permanent director and because it won’t have regulatory authority until it opens in July. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) recently accused the bureau’s acting director, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, of leading what ‘appears to be nothing less than a regulatory shakedown’ of some of the nation’s biggest banks.”

Japan shows we don’t know how to deal with improbable disaster, writes Steven Pearlstein: “Our reward structures don’t encourage spending the time or the money to deal with low-probability disasters. The chief executive of Citigroup acknowledged as much when he told a reporter in 2007 that he would lose his job if he gave up profit and market share to shield his bank from the obviously excessive risk-taking that everyone knew was going on. And you can only imagine the outcry from the industry and those Gulf Coast politicians if government regulators back in 2009 had ordered oil companies to spend millions of dollars to have enough boats and booms at the ready to deal with a BP-sized oil spill from deepwater drilling.”

One can care about the deficit while being compassionate, writes Ruth Marcus: “Failing to deal with the debt will hurt everyone, but the neediest will suffer the most. The economy-wide consequences of doing nothing -- higher interest rates, slower economic growth, lower standards of living -- will hit hardest those least well off. Meanwhile, the budgetary reality of mounting interest costs will eat away at the government’s ability to provide a reliable safety net. This point would seem obvious, except that too often the fiscal policy debate seems to be divided between grinch-like deficit hawks and caring big spenders. The progressive case for worrying about the debt too often goes unmade, and the players forget: Fiscal responsibility is, at bottom, moral responsibility. Fiscal crises are ultimately human crises.”

Montage interlude: How movie title screen have changed over the years.

Health Care

Legislators and lobbyists want to change health reform to help insurance brokers, reports Sarah Kliff: “Legislators and lobbyists are eyeing a bill supporting health insurance brokers as the next health reform tweak that, after the 1099 repeal, has a fighting shot at passing. The legislation, expected to hit the House floor this month, would pull health insurance broker commissions out of the new medical loss ratio regulation, a reform provision that requires insurers to spend 80 percent of every premium dollar on medical costs. In the regulation, agent commissions are categorized as a nonmedical cost, which has encouraged insurers to slash broker rates as a way to shrink administrative spending to 20 percent of subscriber premiums.”

Four in ten Americans said they had trouble paying health bills last year: http://bit.ly/ePivLk

Doctors are still wary of switching to electronic records, reports Lena Sun: “Many are aware that beginning this year, health-care professionals who effectively use electronic records can each receive up to $44,000 over five years through Medicare or up to $63,750 over six years through Medicaid. But to qualify, doctors must meet a host of strict criteria, including regularly using computerized records to log diagnoses and visits, ordering prescriptions and monitoring for drug interactions. And starting in 2015, those who aren’t digital risk having their Medicare reimbursements cut... Critics worry about privacy concerns and medical errors. Doctors seeking cash incentives for going digital must use systems capable of being encrypted. But no federal regulations clearly require that doctors turn the data encryption on or prevent those who don’t do so from getting paid.”

The administration wants to cut costs by making Medicare and Medicaid work better together: http://politi.co/i72GpF

Domestic Policy

Obama’s political and economic teams are split on Social Security cuts, reports Alexander Bolton: “Social Security reform is splitting President Obama’s economic and political advisers. Obama is being pulled in opposite directions by those whose priorities are fiscal and those whose No. 1 concern is electoral. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Sperling’s deputy, Jason Furman -- leading figures in the president’s economic team -- are pressing Obama to cut Social Security benefits if necessary, say sources familiar with their positions. But Obama’s political team, led by David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, are urging the president to understand that backing benefit cuts could prove disastrous to his 2012 reelection hopes, sources say.”

After Wisconsin, federal unions think they’re next: http://wapo.st/i6O4Eg

Obama’s fall deadline for a No Child Left Behind reauthorization likely won’t be met, reports Meredith Shiner: “It’s one of the few areas in which Republicans, Democrats and the White House might agree: The decade-old ‘No Child Left Behind’ law needs to be fixed. But congressional leaders, wary of last year’s legislative battles, almost unanimously dismissed a fall deadline announced Monday by President Barack Obama for passing a major education reform bill. The path to any deal is littered with land mines: Congress is divided, and Speaker John Boehner, one of the chief co-sponsors of the original ‘No Child’ bill, is dealing with a much tougher Republican caucus filled with tea-party-backed freshmen skeptical of a heavy federal hand in education.”

A new study shows most cannot pay student loans back in time: http://nyti.ms/euIFVC

John Boehner wants to preserve funding for DC’s voucher program, report Ben Pershing and Paul Kane: “There’s a little-known program, which gives money to disadvantaged District students to attend private schools, that would get an additional $2.3 million -- thanks largely to one powerful patron, House Speaker John A. Boehner . In his opening gambit as the House’s top leader, Boehner has put his name and new-found clout behind a pair of efforts to give poor students a chance to attend private schools and, in the process, boost the city’s struggling Catholic schools. In addition to the extra $2.3 million in the House-passed spending bill for 2011, Boehner has also submitted a bill that would authorize an additional $20 million per year over the next five years.”

Adorable children with intuitive senses of hygiene interlude: A baby who is terrified by nose-blowing.

Energy

Obama is ordering nuclear regulators to review what they could do better post-Japan: http://politi.co/gXHOke

The Senate will hold a floor vote on the GOP’s anti-EPA bill, report Robin Bravender and Darren Samuelsohn: “Senate Democrats are scrambling to combat a GOP-led offensive against the Obama administration’s climate regulations ahead of a possible Wednesday floor showdown. In a surprising move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled Tuesday he would allow a floor vote on a Republican amendment to nullify the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered the amendment -- authored by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- to the small-business bill pending on the floor. The language mirrors the anti-EPA bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed during a daylong markup Tuesday. Now, Reid and other top Senate Democrats who oppose the amendment are looking for ways to kill it. And they may have a tougher time than they expected.”

Three Democrats joined Republicans in moving anti-EPA legislation ahead: http://nyti.ms/dMXg1h

The world can get by without fossil fuels or nuclear, writes Brad Plumer: “Two engineering professors, Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of University of California Davis, published two papers in Energy Policy offering their own detailed analysis of how the world could get 100 percent of its electricity from existing renewables--mostly solar and wind--by 2050. The task would be staggering. We would need nearly four million five-megawatt wind turbines--i.e., turbines twice as big as those currently on the market. (China just built its first five-megawatter last year.) Plus 90,000 large-scale solar farms--for reference, there are only about three dozen in existence now. Plus 1.7 billion three-kilowatt rooftop solar systems--that is, one for every four people on the planet. But it’s doable...What’s more, the world wouldn’t have to pay that much more for energy than it does today.”

Closing credits: Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Dylan Matthews and Michelle Williams.

 
Read what others are saying

    Most Read: Business

    DJIA
    0.07%
    S&P 500
    0.28%
    NASDAQ
    0.61%
     Last Update: 09:02 PM 11/27/2014

    World Markets from      

     

    Other Market Data from      

     

    Key Rates from