Can the U.S. Economy Be Sustained for Another 236 Years?

Carbon Counter Display Goes Dark
The site of the Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors "carbon counter," on Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street in Manhattan. Photographer: L-R Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg; Eric Roston

By Eric Roston

Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour,” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

The original Declaration of Independence, badly faded from poor 19th-century preservation techniques, is on permanent display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Each passing Fourth of July provides evidence that this document is better preserved than the land whose inhabitants it grants freedom and rights.

As the United States turns 236, relatively few people dwell on the possibility that within another 236 years, North America may cease to be a place capable of sustaining 300 million people in comfort, stability and peace.

That's because the land and water of the United States, and other nations, are increasingly subject to conditions absent in 1776. In fact, they’ve been largely absent from the 12,000-year epoch in which humans blossomed across the globe.

The question on this Fourth of July, with the nation's capital recovering from an unprecedented wind and lightning storm, an unprecedented heat wave, and mass electrical outages, is this: How can scrappy, upbeat Americans look forward to a future as bright as the past unless we grapple with our own “zone of extraordinary opportunity or misery,” a phrase that appears in Royal Dutch Shell’s 2011 report Signals and Signposts? It’s time for a second set of Founding Fathers to step forward, or a first set of Founding Mothers.

Anyone. Who. Wishes. To. Can. Read. Endlessly. From. The. Interdisciplinary. Foundation. Of. Climate. Science. What scientists cannot give the public is common sense. It's up to elected, private-sector, religious and community leaders to help with that. They have generally chosen not to. President Obama last week visited Colorado, charred by the worst wildfire in its history, without mentioning the background contributions of climate change to its rage.

The atmosphere, henceforth and anon, is a joint venture between nature and human industry. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be,” Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research wrote earlier this year. It’s no longer accurate to call extreme meteorological events natural disasters because our atmosphere is no longer entirely natural.

We need daily reminders of this. Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors raised in midtown Manhattan in 2009 the climate-change equivalent of the famous National Debt Clock: A three-story-tall running estimate of the metric tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The so-called Carbon Counter was developed in conjunction with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the George Institute of Technology, and still lives at the advisory’s website, where it publishes its investment research. Unfortunately, the group’s three- year contract recently ended and the counter billboard came down in June. The company would not disclose the cost of running it.

There are other numbers. And there are other companies with large advertising budgets who understand the risks associated with global climate change. Other companies that should consider putting up a billboard (literally or metaphorically) are leaders in sustainability, or even those that belonged to the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (U.S. CAP), which advocated national climate policy in 2009: The AES Corp.Alcoa Inc.Alstom SABoston Scientific CorporationChrysler Group LLCThe Dow Chemical CorporationDuke Energy Corp.DuPont Co.Excelon Corp.General Electric Co.Honeywell International Inc.Johnson & JohnsonNextEra Energy Inc.NRG Energy Inc.PepsiCo Inc., PG&E CorporationPNM Resources Inc.Rio Tinto PlcRoyal Dutch Shell Plc, Siemens Corporation AG and Weyerhaeuser Co.

This isn’t an endorsement of the U.S. CAP members’ old proposals; it’s encouragement for them to spend several million dollars a year in advertising money on clearly branded electronic signs all over the United States that tastefully suggest every day that our way of life is creating self-destructive long-term risks for our way of life.

As sustainable companies reconfigure their business plans for a populous, overheating world -- and place their carbon billboards from sea to shining sea - - they might as well also resuscitate national policy debate. There is a mature body of policy to fight climate change. It is being tested in California, New England, Europe, Australia, South Korea and elsewhere. Its purpose is twofold: To gradually phase out the suicidal emissions of heat-trapping gases; and in the immediate term to protect workers, citizens and shareholders in places and industries that must change if the U.S. is to provide global leadership.

The Fourth of July is a good day to try and reconcile America’s epic beginning with its long-term future. Do elected, civic and private leaders believe that the U.S. economy as currently configured is sustainable another 236 years into the future? If not, what kind of economy might be?

Critics who would say that the nation can’t afford to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and support clean industry are pushing future Americans into a zone of extraordinary misery. The word “sustainability” is thrown around a lot these days, but you almost never hear about the alternative, best summarized by an old quip from Herb Stein, the former advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

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      -0- Jul/04/2012 16:27 GMT
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