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Why Budget Cuts and Global Warming Don't Mix

POSTED:
louisiana high water
A sign warning of high water levels is seen along the side of a road in Louisiana.
REUTERS /JONATHAN BACHMAN /LANDOV

Sometimes you stumble on a case where politics, ideology, and reality collide in a way that provides you with a strikingly clear view of the contradictions that threaten America today.

This morning’s Washington Post described a situation in the state of Louisiana where a global trend—climate change—is leading to a situation—rising sea levels—that YOYO (you’re-on-your-own) economics can’t solve.

Sea levels have been rising in Louisiana and they’re threatening to washout a highway that’s a supply route for – wait for it – oil and gas:

Highway 1, unprotected by levees, connects critical oil and gas resources in booming Port Fourchon to the rest of the nation...

Local residents and business leaders are demanding that the federal government help pay to rebuild and elevate the remaining section of Highway 1, adding two miles to span the levees. Federal officials have provided scientific and technical expertise but will not contribute funding unless the state pledges to complete the road.

Louisiana says it doesn’t have the money.

So there’s the second problem.  Officials in a state with an aggressive tax-cutting governor – Bobby Jindal can boast of having pushed through the largest tax cuts in the state’s history – one who consistently inveighs against government spending, are "demanding" the Feds send money.

You may remember Gov. Jindal, a Republican, created a bit of a stir a few years back.  Tagged to respond to President Obama’s first State of the Union address, in 2009, Jindal argued that the Feds shouldn’t be spending money on the monitoring of volcanoes by the U.S. Geological Survey.  Instead, Jindal zinged, "what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."

The tactic here is to inveigh against spending cuts against anything that sounds silly to people — though of course monitoring volcanoes actually sounds like something you’d want your government to do – until you actually need federal help.  Then demand it.

But what if isn’t there?  Virtually all of the federal budget cuts legislated in the last year or so – and there’s been about $2 trillion of them – have come from what’s called the discretionary side of the budget, the non-entitlement part that's appropriated each year to fund the agencies and yes, to provide "grants-in-aid" to states.  This part of the budget is far less insulated from attack than the entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, which are much more tangible to people (though there are some "low-information" types who have called for "keeping the government out of my Medicare"). 

In fact, grants to states and cities are a third of the non-defense, discretionary budget.  And if, in your frenzy to cut something — anything! — you slash away at them, while simultaneously insisting on no new revenues … then, yes … you can demand all you want, but the money won’t be there.

And then, of course, there’s the grand irony here.  According to the Associated Press, "Louisiana has lost about 2,100 square miles of coast and loses about 25 square miles a year. Experts warn that much of south Louisiana and Mississippi are at risk of being lost for good." Additionally, "32 scientists – including many working on the state's coastal restoration efforts – told Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that there's a direct link between the rising sea levels eroding the state's coastline and greenhouse gases produced by the state's industries."

Future divers, exploring the modern-day Atlantis that used to be coastal America, will marvel at our method of dealing with rising sea levels: Put the highways on stilts so we could continue to transport the fossil fuels that were causing the sea levels to rise.  That is, until we ran out of stilt money.

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