November 1, 2014

Debt, environmental problems have similar solutions

This article originally appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Nov. 16, 2010.

By Ross Gittell and Robert L. Bixby

WITH THE midterm elections over, aspiring presidential hopefuls will soon be arriving in New Hampshire to test-market themes for the 2012 contest. But as the recent election demonstrated, political candidates often make easy, short-term promises while ignoring the more difficult long-term challenges ahead.

It is clear that we are on unsustainable paths with the federal budget, health care costs, entitlement programs, energy and the environment. So one question that New Hampshire residents should pose to the candidates they will soon find on their doorsteps: “How would you go beyond the short term to effectively deal with the long-term issues that hold the key to our future?”

With this in mind, the University of New Hampshire and the nonpartisan Concord Coalition are hosting a conference this Thursday called Sustainable Future: How Can Our Nation Turn the Corner on the Economy and the Environment and Can New Hampshire Lead the Way? (Additional information on the conference is available at www.concordcoalition.org.)

While not usually thought of as a package, our economic and environmental challenges share many similarities. In both cases, what seems appealing in the short term often is not good long-term policy. This creates obvious political disincentives for strategic thinking and discourse. Voters must be convinced that sacrifices today are necessary for a brighter tomorrow.

Because the benefits of wise fiscal and environmental policies may not be felt immediately, there is a tendency for them to be underplayed in national elections. This year, however, the sheer size of the budget deficit grabbed the nation’s attention.

Shortly before Election Day, the federal government closed the books on its second fiscal year in a row with a deficit of more than $1 trillion, with projections of even bigger financial problems down the road, even after the economy has fully recovered.

Much of the problem is simple math. As the population ages, there will be more Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and they will be consuming more health care services even as the cost of those services continues to rise.

Meanwhile, elected officials in both parties want to cut taxes. Higher spending and lower taxes result in growing deficit projections for as far as the eye can see. Worse yet, when interest rates rise from today’s very low levels, all that accumulated debt will be much more expensive to maintain.

With regard to environmental sustainability, greenhouse- gas emissions are contributing to a changing climate. In New Hampshire these changes include warmer winters, reduced snowfall, earlier spring runoff and more severe weather events that bring increased costs and flood risks.

As with fiscal problems, these environmental changes are projected to increase in severity if left unchecked — and could significantly damage our economy and way of life. The climate changes threaten New Hampshire’s economy, which has long been dependent on tourism related to summer and winter recreation and on the natural beauty of our mountains, lakes, rivers and seacoast. These natural resources add to the state’s quality of life and help attract and retain entrepreneurs and skilled workers.

Fortunately, there is one more important similarity between the environmental and fiscal challenges: They have potential solutions. On the fiscal side, they include cuts in the domestic spending that Congress approves every year, reductions in the defense budget, entitlement reforms, curbs on health care inflation, simpler and more responsible tax policies and tougher budget rules in Congress.

There can be smart, effective solutions on the environmental front as well. “Clean” technologies can help conserve energy and provide new renewable energy resources. This can reduce greenhouse- gas emissions and lower energy costs while helping create jobs.

An example: the University of New Hampshire’s EcoLineTM, an innovative project in partnership with the Waste Management company that uses purified methane gas from a landfill in Rochester to provide up to 85 percent of campus power.

This saves the university money and helps protect the state’s environment by reducing greenhouse emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 named EcoLine as a project of the year.

The sooner we adopt more farsighted fiscal and environmental policies, the better. Delay will only make the problems more difficult to solve.

To get the nation on a more responsible course, public engagement is essential. By pressing presidential hopefuls on these issues, New Hampshire can continue its role as the place where important national questions get the attention and responses of political candidates.

Without this, our future outlook is neither bright nor sustainable.

Ross Gittell is the James R. Carter professor at the University of New Hampshire. Robert L. Bixby is executive director of The Concord Coalition, a national, nonpartisan advocate of fiscal responsibility in Washington.