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Is America the New Becky Sharp?

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Becky Sharp, Thackeray's anti-hero in Vanity Fair, lived beyond her means and rarely paid her bills, particularly those she owed to "tradespeople" who had provided her with basic but unglamorous services. Are we really ready to emulate her as a nation?

Most Americans would find that distasteful. After all, we are the country that admired Finland for being the only nation to fully repay its World War I debts to us. But the debate swirling around this year's UN Climate Summit in Cancún is as much about our national honor as it is about the global climate. The U.S. emits 6 billion tons of CO2 waste and pollution every year. Only about one-fifth of it can be absorbed by our forests, grasslands, and soils. The rest is handed off to someone else to store and process -- Indonesian rainforests, the oceans off the Maldives, or the winds driving drought over Africa. We are dumping our garbage on the rest of the world's doorstep. Other nations haven't agreed to have our carbon in their skies or oceans or forests -- and we haven't paid them for the service they are providing. They believe, whether the oil and coal industries and the Tea Party leadership agree or not, that this carbon garbage is damaging their future. They want us to pay them for the services we have, in effect, taken without their consent.

Voluntary exchange is the essence of what we proudly proclaim to be the free-market system. But there's nothing voluntary about the carbon we dump on the rest of the world. In Copenhagen, the U.S. committed to a (probably inadequate) payment for the carbon damage we are inflicting on others -- the industrial world would come up with $100 billion a year to pay most of humanity for what we have taken from them over the last century. Now in Cancún the question becomes, "Did we really mean it?" Or, like Becky Sharp, do we plan to stiff the tradespeople again and duck our bill?

Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works are not in doubt -- stiff the tailor! In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ranking minority senator John Barrasso and three of his colleagues demanded that the Obama administration cease all efforts to pay America's global climate bill:

We have a $1.29 trillion deficit and are $13.6 trillion in debt. It makes no sense for the United States to now spend billions of taxpayer dollars to fight climate change in other countries. Americans are concerned about jobs, the economy, the debt and spending. If the administration is serious about listening to the American people, they will cancel this international climate change bailout.

The logic of the letter is breathtaking -- Becky Sharp couldn't have put off a starving laundress more deftly. Basically, Barrasso and his colleagues argue that America is too poor to pay its bills:

In light of the federal government's dire financial situation and the poor state of the economy, in addition to ongoing reviews at the IPCC, we request that the administration freeze further spending requests to implement international climate change finance programs.

The core of the problem, of course, is that Barrasso doesn't want to admit that if we are dumping carbon on the rest of the world, then we owe them something. But this is not an easy case for him to make -- so he pretends that the issue is how much damage our carbon garbage did:

Several of the findings of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concerning the eventual impacts of climate change in developing countries were found to be exaggerated or simply not true.

But of course, thousands of other findings have not been challenged. So America won't pay an obligation, billions of which are not in doubt, because some debate remains about the final few hundred dollars. In Barrasso's version, the U.S. is failing to bargain hard enough with peasants in Bangladesh about how much of the sea-level rise that's wiping out their rice paddies is our responsibility. Becky Sharp would be proud.

But, in fact, America can afford to pay. Not just in principle, but in practice. In fact, given the modesty of the agreed-upon $100 billion annual settlement, it shouldn't cost us anything -- as long as we are willing to send a fraction of their overdue notes in the direction of the coal and oil industries.

A month ago, a high-level UN advisory committee set up to figure out how hard -- or easy -- it would be to meet the Copenhagen commitment reported back, "Raising US $100 billion per year is challenging but feasible."  What's interesting is how much of what they proposed would, in effect, simply mean making sure that those who burn carbon must also pay to get rid of their garbage. In fact, 10 percent of the bill could be paid simply by ending subsidies to coal and oil -- subsidies that encourage them to run up even bigger bills on the unlimited credit card we have foolishly issued them.

And this week the Center for American Progress and Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection issued a report showing how the U.S. could benefit not only from paying its bills but also from leading other nations toward a world in which Finland, not Becky Sharp, becomes the global model.

Let's be real. It's our carbon garbage. It's our bill. We can afford it. We ought to pay it. Hard bargaining about paying your undisputed debts is not the American way. And if the Republican leadership in Congress wants to organize a Dead-Beat Caucus, let them. President Obama, can you be at least as visionary as Finland?

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