Bill McKibben reminds us that we can’t put climate change on hold until we think it’s economically convenient; the natural world has its own priorities, and we don’t get to vote. If you understand why putting a lid on carbon emissions is urgent, you know why it can’t be pushed back to the middle of the to-do list.
But there is another point to be made, crucially. In the end, there is only one resource constraint the government faces in its effort to contain the financial crisis and prevent recession from morphing into depression: the requirement that external deficits be financed. The Fed can wave its wand and create finance out of thin air—so long as this doesn’t lead to a panicked flight from the dollar. As it was in the beginning of the crisis, so it shall be in its long unfolding: dollars going out must find their way back in.
This constraint is invisible at the moment, because treasuries are seen as the safest asset in an unsafe world. In fact, money is flowing in at such a pace that the Fed has had to set up a network of currency swaps to make sure other central banks have enough dollars. But that sentiment will change at some point, perhaps suddenly, and when it does the feasibility of the current free-spending bailout will be in question.
There is no single solution to this problem (although I’ve argued in the past that bailing out the private sector’s old losses to generate new finance makes it worse). One significant step, however, is to push down the US oil import bill as far as it can go. A carbon cap along the lines Obama the candidate advocated last winter would be just the ticket. If we jack up the price of oil through a hard-nosed cap, imports will fall. And, as I also argued in an earlier post, households would benefit if the auction revenues were returned to them more or less in full. Rather than paying out to oil companies and petrostates and never seeing their money again, their payments would be captured by the auctions and handed back to them. Importance for the financial crisis: less oil imports mean a lower current account deficit, and therefore less reliance on external financing. It pushes the resource constraint out.