I hear it all over these days: Future Generations Will Pay for [fill in the blank]. We have a stark political breakdown on what load will be transferred to future generations. What does this mean for us?
Here are just a few examples.
In fact, all of these issues – and more – are serious problems. They are problems now and will be problems for the foreseeable future. Future generations will no doubt have to repay the burdens today’s and yesterday’s decisions have created. They all matter. They all limit options.
The talk about future generations is, in a sense, just a way of saying that this is a long-term, intractable, hard to face up to problem.
So why the political breakdown and what is the debate anyway? To some degree it seems to be a business v. people breakdown. Money versus lives.
I thought about these issues while listening to this week’s Living on Earth story about Lessons learned from Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island.
The discussion shows us the stark tradeoffs and the debts we are heaping on future generations. Here we see the economy v. energy in the context of nuclear energy.
GELLERMAN: So here we are, thirty years after Three Mile Island and now there’s talk of a nuclear renaissance. Is that going to happen?
YOUNG: Well, you know, the melt down in question now is the economic melt down. The industry was predicting a dozen new reactors in the coming decade. Well, then the economy went south. Financing dried up. So analysts who look at the situation now say, we might see four, maybe eight, new reactors.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. But there are a lot more on the drawing boards, right?
YOUNG: In a paper sense, yes. But how many of those really get built is largely going to depend on the loan guarantees that the federal government is willing to put up for them. And I see another fight brewing in Congress over that – over whether to make more money available. Nuclear supporters here on Capitol Hill came very close to getting 50 billion dollars worth of loan guarantees in the economic stimulus bill, and they’re gonna try again as bills on energy and climate change take shape here in the coming months.
And later the discussion turns to energy v. the environment in the context of drilling for oil.
GELLERMAN: . . . there’s another big part of the oil debate, and that’s off shore drilling.
YOUNG: Oh, absolutely. You recall that in the heat of the “drill, baby, drill” summer and four dollar a gallon gas, we lost the moratoria on offshore drilling. So the Obama administration is now in the midst of a review of what areas should be opened to oil, to gas and other energy development, like wind power or wave power. And we could get some preliminary reports from that review very soon, in just the next week or so. One of the first areas where we are likely to see an expansion of offshore drilling is in Alaska. There are leases for the far northern coast and a very controversial proposal to open part of the Bristol Bay of the Bering Sea.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. So how’s that playing with the folks up in Alaska?
YOUNG: Well, you know, petroleum is, of course, the state’s biggest industry, but fishing is also very important. And that’s something Keith Colburn came to Washington to remind Congress about. Colburn captains a crabbing boat in Bristol Bay. Maybe you saw him on television. He’s on the Discovery Channel program, “Deadliest Catch.” And when I caught up with him, Colburn was holding this big jar of dirty rocks.
COLBURN: Get this on the radio. Right there.
[SOUND OF JAR OPENNING]
YOUNG: Now, what’s in there?
COLBURN: These are rocks, cobbles, and a little bit of sand collected …
YOUNG: Oh man, I can smell it. That’s oil.
COLBURN: Yeah that is. That’s tar. That’s oil. That is – and that’s six inches below the surface in Prince William Sound. Eight percent of the oil was cleaned up. So, on the surface things look good. But below the surface, it’s completely different. I mean, not only in the inner tidal zones, but in the fisheries and fish stocks we still have, twenty years later, a lot of damage to the resources of that area. And the Bering Sea represents forty percent of the nation’s seafood products. Forty percent in one small area. And to put that at risk is a ludicrous idea.
YOUNG: Now next month the Interior Department which oversees offshore drilling is hosting four public hearings around the country on off shore energy. And one of those hearings, April 14th, is in Alaska, so people there will be able to share what lessons they think we should apply from the Valdez spill.
In other words, the trade off in some of these areas may not be about future generations. This generation may bear the burden sooner than we like for decisions we are making.
And when it comes to climate change, it may not be some far distant future generation that alone pays the tab. We ourselves may be forced to kick in on handling the costs of our inability to have intelligent discussions on these issues.
The very house we live in – our planet, the climate we have evolved to live with, more may be crashing down on us than we can truly handle. And maybe the bill comes due and payable now.