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for people who care about the West

Forget Wall Street, focus on the real issues

 

We are approaching a crisis that stems in part from irresponsible behavior and is aggravated by our insatiable consumer culture. A lack of government oversight has let the problem grow to catastrophic levels. Now it could devastate entire economies and societies.

No, I'm not talking about Wall Street. I'm talking about the crisis we seem to forget whenever our credit limits are threatened: climate change. Today, the environment is once again taking a backseat to other problems. We're fascinated by the jagged line depicting the stock market's abstract ups and downs, even as we ignore the much more frightening -- and far from abstract -- upward surge in global temperatures.

This issue's feature story should put things back into perspective, reminding us that our economic problems are small potatoes compared to what the planet is facing. As we've done in the past in our stories on climate change, we've tried to take an in-depth look at the phenomenon and the science behind it. Madeleine Nash, former senior science correspondent for Time magazine, goes back more than 50 million years to examine the last big climate shift. She discovers that nature can wreak havoc on the earth even without humankind's help. What we're learning about past climate change has surprising relevance today -- especially because we're changing the climate more quickly than ever before.

We don't want to inject more doom and gloom into our readers' daily existence; there's already enough to go around. But it's worth considering our reactions to the financial crisis and how drastically they differ from our approach to climate change. In the course of just a few weeks, President Bush (after initially saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong), repeatedly begged the nation and Congress to devote $700 billion in taxpayer money to bail out the failing financial giants. Politicians from both parties have tossed around end-of-the-world language when describing the consequences of inaction. Not one of them has shown nearly the same amount of urgency when it comes to climate change.

Meanwhile, the costs of ignoring the climate crisis are much greater, and the costs of addressing it are probably smaller. (Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute, estimates that it will cost around $190 billion per year to effectively address global warming.) The $1 trillion or more that economists say is needed to solve the financial mess would buy a lot of wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines. And that would create thousands of jobs to revitalize the economy.

Perhaps it's too much to ask Washington to realign its priorities entirely, and focus a bit more energy on the environment and a bit less on Wall Street. It is, however, reasonable to suggest that lawmakers take at least one lesson from the financial calamity and apply it to the climate crisis: We've tried letting the free market take its course by deregulating the banking system. It didn't work. Let's not make the same mistake when it comes to dealing with climate change. Real intervention is needed. And it's needed now.