06/15/2008 02:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Father's Day, Climate & Child Neglect

I've never been a fan of the Hallmark Holidays. So please forgive me if I come off as churlish when I saw that we -- meaning the fathers of America -- don't have much to celebrate on Father's Day.

Here's the problem. Most American men aren't very good fathers. Most American women aren't very good mothers, either.

I say this not to critique family life in America. I'm not expert on how we rear our children in the privacy of our homes. Instead, I want to make a larger point -- that as citizens and consumers, we are at best neglecting and at worst abusing our children.

Strong language, I know, but bear with me. Our neglect of our kids is most evident when you think about the issue of climate change. But it's also demonstrated by the way in which, as a society, are dealing (actually, not dealing) with such problems as the funding of the war in Iraq, the long-term instability of Social Security and Medicare, and the dismal state of public education.

Start with global warming. Strip away the dizzying complexities of the Lieberman-Warner bill or the EU carbon-trading market and ask a simple question: Are we willing to sacrifice today so that our children have a better chance of living on a safe, habitable planet? The obvious answer is no.

We don't want to live in smaller homes. We don't want to take public transit or drive smaller cars. (At least until gas topped $4 a gallon, we didn't.) We don't want to buy less stuff. We don't want to pay more for renewable energy, as opposed to cheap polluting coal. We don't want to eat less meat. We don't want to turn the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. We don't seem to want public policies that would drive energy efficiency, or promote clean energy or discourage the burning of fossil fuels, with a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. At least, we don't want them enough to make them happen.

And yet-if we continue to behave as we have, the odds are overwhelming that we will produce a catastrophe that is best described not as "global warming, " a benign-sounding phrase that implies that climate change may turn out to be uniform, slow and even harmless, but as a "global climatic disruption" that will generate floods, drought, extremes of hot and cold weather, and other unforeseen consequences, most of which will be harmful.

So, at least, says John Holdren, the Harvard physicist and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Center, who spoke last week at a conference in Washington. He made the point that time is of the essence in trying to mitigate the impact of climate change. "We don't know how to change the global energy system quickly," he noted. It will take decades of work, billions of dollars of investments in research and trillions of dollars of capital. Americans should lead the way for a number of reasons -- we've produced more greenhouse gases than any other nation, we have the technical know-how, we have the wealth and, if we don't act, China and India never will.

But we have barely begun. Correct me, please, if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that we waste more energy, generate more trash and produce more greenhouse gases per capita than any other nation on the planet--including people who enjoy a perfectly good quality of life in western Europeans and Japan.

Is this child abuse or merely child neglect? You make the call.

I'm not going to dig into the details of the other public-policy issues listed above. Suffice it to say that whether you support the Iraq War or not, we are asking those who serve in the military to make great sacrifices and we are asking the war to be paid for (with interest) by our children, as the federal debt grows. We've done almost nothing to fix entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare; the next generation will pay more to fix them, as a result. As for schools, most Republicans don't want to pay higher taxes so that public school teachers can earn more; most Democrats oppose charter schools and school choice despite the fact that inner-city parents desperately want alternatives for their kids. Obviously I'm generalizing here, but you get the idea.

So what's gone wrong? One problem is that we're not very good at thinking long-term. Another is that we live in a commercial culture that is drenched by advertising messages telling us to consume--more, bigger, now! (See this new report on the decline of thrift, the subject of a David Brooks column last week) We've also suffered from a lack of political leadership; politicians seem afraid to ask us to sacrifice for the common good or for future generations.

Many of us have also erected a wall between our personal and public lives. We try to live by good values at home, in our neighborhoods, churches and synagogues, communities. We don't always apply those values when we go to work, shop or even vote. (One phrase used to describe the disconnect between our values/faith and our work is the Sunday-Monday gap.) Perhaps we've privatized morality. Sure, we love our kids, but we express that love in our personal lives, not in our public actions.

I'm an optimist, so I believe this state of affairs as permanent. Bold political leadership would help. So would courageous religious leaders who are willing to talk about climate change or entitlement reform or public education as moral and religious issues.

In the meantime, have a good Father's Day.