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Deferred Action

Future Generations’ Burden

The impossibility of conclusively linking any single catastrophic weather event to climate change was evident again in the flash flooding last week that washed out roads in numerous communities in the Twin States and forced the evacuation of the new Rivermere affordable-housing complex in Lebanon.

Mother Nature has always been capable of off-the-chart extremes — so it’s not inconceivable that something like this could have happened without global warming. On the other hand, the culvert that failed on Slayton Hill Road and overwhelmed Rivermere with mud proved inadequate because 2 inches of rain fell in 45 minutes and did so at a time when the area was saturated after weeks of unusually heavy rainfall. More frequent occasions of extreme weather — both in intensity and duration — are precisely what climatologists have warned will be produced by a global climate altered by the burning of fossil fuels.

In any case, establishing a direct link to a particular weather event seems, at this point, irrelevant or unnecessary: More disturbing — and more persuasive in terms of assessing the role of global warming — is the frequency with which we’re dealing with unusual and unusually destructive weather. Just in the Northeast, we’ve endured in quick succession Irene, Sandy and now the tropical summer of 2013.

Regardless of the cause, it seems to be an especially cruel blow for an affordable housing complex that has been years in the making, not to mention for residents who by definition have limited resources to cope with such devastation. Two of the eight most severely damaged units could be uninhabitable for weeks. The stories of hardship are at once familiar and poignant. One silver lining in the repetitive nature of climatological trauma is that the region is more experienced and better prepared: The Upper Valley Strong organization, formed in the wake of Irene and still helping people recover from that storm, was ready to quickly lend a hand to Rivermere.

And then there’s the cost. Besides the expense of repairing or rebuilding the damaged dwelling units, Slayton Hill Road will need to be reconstructed, not just repaired. Over in Vermont, Windsor town officials estimated that they face $1 million in repairs, and Gov. Peter Shumlin estimated that state roads had sustained more than $3 million in damage — and some of that money will be spent on repairing infrastructure that had been repaired or replaced after the Irene disaster. That’s a trivial amount, we suppose, compared with the hundreds of millions spent on recovering from Irene. Or the $20 billion that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed spending as a preventative measure to construct seawalls and other buffers to protect the metropolitan area from a repeat of Sandy.

Unfortunately, one sort of preventative expense that still doesn’t seem to have found much favor is taking measures to stop or at least slow global warming. One of the most promising — establishing a carbon tax to discourage more carbon dioxide from being pumped into the atmosphere — could be made revenue neutral by lowering other taxes in tandem. But the mere fact that such a tax would increase energy costs has allowed the concept to be wrongly labeled and summarily rejected as a threat to prosperity. Other proposals that diverge from longstanding policy of delivering fossil-fuel-based energy to businesses and consumers at rock-bottom prices also seem to be nonstarters. The notion that people should be asked to make any sort of financial sacrifice on behalf of the effort is regarded as almost laughable.

At a time when budget hawks are condemning deficits as immoral because they shift the burden of contemporary spending to future generations, we can’t help but wonder about the morality of ignoring climate deficits. By refusing to take meaningful action now to curb fossil-fuel use, are we not simply assigning the cost, pain and disruption to future generations — those who had no say in current energy policy and certainly won’t enjoy any of the benefits of dirt-cheap fossil fuels?