It’s time to pay down our climate debt


It’s something, usually money, or a service we owe in return. Having borrowed something, we need to pay it back. Or it’s a feeling of gratitude we hold toward someone or something they have done for us. Sadly, I’m indebted to some financial corporations for my student loans. And yes, slowly, I am required by law to pay them back. I’m also indebted to my mother for supporting me and letting me fail, for her steady support, for believing that somehow this wild-eyed temperamental creature of a son could figure things out. We are all indebted to the old growth hemlocks in Alan Seeger Natural Area for being homes to myriad creatures, for cleaning our air, for sinking carbon, and for their ruddy majesty.

Picture from “Short Changed: Thoughts on the National Debt and Who Has to Pay For It, From the Perspective of a Teenager.”

We have a climate debt of the first kind to pay and another debt to pay to some courageous Republicans.


Recently Florida congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fl) has adopted the term climate debt. But he’s adapted it from being some progressive environmentalist term to being something conservatives can identify with. And it really matters, because it’s part of how climate change has moved and will continue to move from the left, across the center, and into the right as climate change affects people where they live. Climate debt is a rhetorical contagion, a meme that will help us all get to the table to solve the climate challenge.

A few months ago, I said the tide is turning on the Republican stance on climate change. I wrote that a group of Republicans led by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) was getting some in the GOP on the record to agree with Democrats and the vast majority of scientists that the climate is changing and that human activity is to blame. And now the tide is rising, figuratively and literally. As sea levels have risen, they’ve buoyed a bipartisan group in congress to tackle the climate challenge. Faced with storm surges and king tides, salinated water and flooded streets, Representatives Curbelo (R-Fl) and Deutch (D-Fl) have come together.

People’s lives are changing because of biophysical impacts from our fossil-fuel-powered system. As I wrote in my “Ask an Ethicist” piece for Penn State Today‘s Earth Day edition,

For over 150 years, we’ve known that adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. Over that time we have uncovered how rising temperatures would impact the oceans, atmosphere, ice caps and glaciers, nonhuman creatures from walruses to parasites, our economies, cultures, and national and international security.

Industrialized nations have thickened the atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases and warmed the planet 1 degree C. We see warming already destabilizing ice sheets, raising sea levels, intensifying cyclones, disrupting food chains, and more. The future impacts are likely worse.

Miami is right there. Curbelo and Deutch perceive that those impacts threaten their place, the home of their economic and cultural livelihoods. Much like people in Bangledesh and Carterette face their lives being swallowed by the sea, so too do Curbelo, Deutch, and their constituents. These risks threaten who they are as Floridians more than they threaten their political identities as Republicans or conservatives.  Using this place-based threat, we can consider our own and our representative’s positions.

For a slightly simplistic contrast, compare Curbelo–a Cuban American representing people whose culture and livelihoods rely on the ocean–with my own Congressman Glenn Thompson–a white Pennsylvanian who hunts and fishes but is heavily lobbied by oil and gas industries. Curbelo has immediate reason to act while Thompson doesn’t. Sure, if Thompson cared to understand the impacts of climate change on Pennsylvania he could check out the third Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment and see that declines in the ski industry, heat stress on livestock, the decline of our state tree the eastern hemlock, and rising Lyme disease infections all tie to changes in the climate. But Pennsylvania doesn’t have something in this state like “salt water in the streets [to] trump party politics.” Yet. If we don’t act, he and people like him will wonder how Philadelphia became like Alabama.

What will that do to our identities? What if I can’t do what I used to do? I’m surrounded by Pennsylvanians in love with the hardwood and hemlock forests, the farmland, the university and how brings something between the bustle of the urban life and the quiet insularity of rural life. What if I can’t fish cold water streams with my kids because the temperatures are too high, mountain bike or hunt without covering myself with toxic sprays to keep ticks off of me, or grow some crops because the deluges are too powerful after a drought? It’s what the folks Seamus McGraw writes about in Betting the Farm on a Drought see—outdoors folks, ranchers, farmers, and coastal folks watching the climate alter the land, their ancestry, and their legacies. The land and tradition live in and through them. They speak from the place because they are the place. They are their homes. They are a relationship. Curbelo is speaking the power of his relationships with Florida, its people, and its land. He is quite literally conservative Florida seeing itself and saying, “We need to rise to this occasion,” and doing so with authenticity.

For all of the talk about national security threats from climate change, let’s face it, liberals are barely in a place to talk as defense hawks. Greenies like me talking about climate change as a “threat multiplier” pales in comparison to Admiral David Titley saying the same. Same with Christianity. It just doesn’t work. I’m a non-believing Unitarian Universalist who usually talks through ethics in a secular way. But climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, my friends Cricket Eccleston Hunter or Jon Brockopp, or former Rep. Bob Inglis? They speak deeply and authentically to traditions that I can’t. So does Curbelo.

He is a bridge. He has found the language that his constituents and his partisan allies can identify with. It is the language of posterity, of legacy, of conservative responsibility. He says,

I tell them, and I’ve said this to some in the media, as well but ignoring climate change is as reckless or as irresponsible as ignoring our country’s growing national debt and the fiscal crisis that looms if we do not take action and make some meaningful reform to some of our mandatory spending programs. This is the same theme as when it comes to climate change. The debt with the climate is growing.

What’s great is that the concept of climate debts has been around for a while. But it’s been used by people pushing for environmental justice and as a means to evaluate fair global climate deals. Environmental justice and global U.N. deals? Those are left-wing affronts to American sovereignty to many Americans. But they don’t have to be. When conservatives use a term like debt, they mean paying back what you owe in concrete action. We should all agree.

In the final chapter of Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway analogize the price we will have to pay to a restaurant bill. For years, a number of media-savvy players with ties to the fossil fuel industry have gripped white-knuckled to neoliberal fundamentalisms and American Cold War identities. For them, to accept climate change was to attack the very idea of America. But now that the climate is rebounding and hitting us where we and how we live and the idea of America as disconnected from our land is changing.

We the people are a responsible people. So let’s get on with this business and pay down the climate debt.  And Mr. Curbelo and Mr. Deutch, those who have brought you together, those of you who have been courageous enough to stand with them, we owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you.


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