The news out of Washington, DC this week is likely to focus on the failure of the “Supercommittee” to agree on a plan to cut the federal debt. Finger pointing has already begun and there is talk of undermining the automatic triggers put into law that were designed to cajole both sides into cutting a deal lest significant cuts into treasured programs and departments are made in budgets following 2012.
The focus of concern is the Defense Department and not entitlement programs, which troubles me for two reasons: (1) I’ve yet to read a non-biased argument (to give the most public of examples, it does seem to me that the opinion of the current Secretary of Defense is somewhat biased) explaining how even with the planned deep cuts into the Defense budget as called for in the triggers what near or plausibly near-peer competitor will leap ahead of us across any set of security parameters and seriously threaten our national security. The cuts may drive a strategic reconsideration of our military footprint and national policies around the globe (for deeper thoughts on that subject, I would recommend Harvard professor Steve Walt’s blog: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/), but I do not see how they lead to North Korea, Iran, or even China coming to represent an existential threat. That is not to say I favor this outcome–I would much rather see a considered package of defense and entitlement cuts in addition to sensible new revenue–but I am not concerned that it represents the end of U.S. military hegemony.
Oh yeah, (2): while obviously our national security is of utmost importance, the imbalance between publicly displayed concern by politicians about cuts in defense vs. entitlements saddens me at some level. As a citizen of such a powerful nation I wonder, where is our concern about those among the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens? How many additional fighter aircraft provide a return on defense investment in comparison to helping to provide for the health of a poor child who can perhaps then realize his or her full potential and contribute to our society? Or the health of those who have spent a lifetime contributing?
While these are general, and somewhat philosophical, observations a more concrete example of shortchanging the future recently occurred in…wait for it…Congress:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to reshuffle its offices to establish a National Climate Service akin to the agency’s National Weather Service. It asked for no new funding to do so.
But in a political climate where talk of the earthly kind of climate can be radioactive, the answer in last week’s budget deal was “no.” Congress barred NOAA from launching what the agency bills as a “one-stop shop” for climate information.
Climate change is a particularly hot topic (pun intended), so this decision is not surprising. That does not make it any less disappointing.
Who would find such an office helpful? Most likely some latte-drinking hippies:
Farmers are wondering when to plant. Urban planners want to know whether groundwater will stop flowing under subdivisions. Insurance companies need climate data to help them set rates.
The proposal has drawn wide-ranging support. NOAA’s administrator from 2001 to 2008 under Bush, Conrad C. Lautenbacher, urged Congress to approve it this year. So did scientific, weather and industry groups, including the Reinsurance Association of America, which represents huge firms that backstop home, car and life insurance companies.
This matters to homeland security because it impacts a wide range of risk areas:
Franklin W. Nutter, president of the RAA, said insurance companies are increasingly relying on the predictions of a changing future that NOAA provides. “It’s become clear that historic patterns of natural catastrophes — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods — are not good predictors of future risks,” he said. In other words, the future’s looking rougher.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change buttressed that message last week. A report from the world’s top climate science group warned of more extreme weather, more frequent droughts, worse downpours and more dramatic flooding.
Sometimes relatively small investments now can contribute to significant future savings. Is this an example of preparedness, mitigation, or both? Whatever box one wishes to throw it in, this decision seems to undercut our resilience.
At the very least, this decision must contribute to cutting government spending, right?
After the deal, which passed Congress last week, a House Appropriations Committee news release implied that Congress had saved $322 million in fiscal year 2012 by nixing the climate service.
The reality: Congress is still giving NOAA those funds for climate research and data delivery. But they’ll be distributed across the agency instead of consolidated under an umbrella climate service. The hundreds of millions in savings trumpeted by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee are an illusion.
Perhaps later this week there will be news that for which one can feel thankful.