Steve Chapman

Rousing the public to do something about the growing federal debt is not easy. The dangers it poses are distant and vague. The immediate effects are not apparent. Any measure to cut deficits looks trivial next to the scale of the problem. Doing nothing is the easiest option.

But responsible adults understand the need to stanch the red ink. It can't be a good thing to run up debt year after year instead of living within our means.

Bringing spending into line with revenue is a matter of sound government policy because it forces voters to pay for their choices. It's a matter of morality because our children and grandchildren shouldn't have to suffer from our myopic self-indulgence. Ignoring the problem is no solution.

The same dilemma arises with our production of greenhouse gases. Climate change may not be disastrous, and it may not be clearly noticeable soon. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions has an upfront cost with an uncertain payoff. Even ambitious steps won't make a huge difference. Doing nothing is the easiest option.

So when the Environmental Protection Agency came out with a new regulatory program to reduce carbon emissions, there were plenty of arguments for inaction. It would destroy coal-mining jobs, raise electricity rates and hobble the economy, without making any real difference in the fate of the planet.

But all this amounts to rationalizing recklessness. The global warming skeptics offer a parade of excuses for complacency: Climate change isn't happening. If it's happening, it's not because of human activity. If it's because of human activity, it's a good thing. If it's not a good thing, the remedy is too expensive. If it's not too expensive, it's too modest to matter, or it's so radical it will reduce us all to bondage.

Their approach is not to look at the facts and draw conclusions from them. It's to start with a conclusion and find ways to justify it.

But the evidence of the reality and risks of climate change grows every day. The administration's plan to reduce carbon emissions is an attempt to curb those dangers, primarily by discouraging the use of coal for generating electricity.

That should not be terribly hard, since the fracking revolution has made cleaner-burning natural gas cheap and abundant. Michael Lynch, president of the consulting firm Strategic Energy and Economic Research, told The New York Times, "It's not Obama's war on coal. It's reality's war on coal. Natural gas turns out to be better than coal in the marketplace."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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