U.S. budget sequestration and carbon sequestration compared.

se·ques·tra·tion (n.)

1. removal or separation; banishment or exile. 2. a withdrawal into seclusion; retirement. 3. Law. a. the sequestering of property. b. confiscation or seizure.

The news media are agog these days about the upcoming federal budget sequestration. As a result, the public is quickly coming up to speed as well. Ask any stranger, in any setting, and chances are good your target will be aware of the issue and have a view. Americans from every walk of life are waking up to just how they’ll be impacted.  Of course, “every walk of life” includes the Weather and Climate Enterprise. Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang has just nicely summarized some of the implications for meteorological science and services.

Readers of this blog are likely to be equally aware of carbon sequestration. The term is used variously, but most often refers to the deliberate removal of carbon from the atmosphere and storage in a reservoir, usually geologic/underground. Carbon sequestration is one of several geoengineering approaches aimed at countering some of the deleterious effects of the world’s growing dependence upon fossil fuels… coal, oil, and natural gas. Of course, if you are one of those aware of this latter usage, and tracking its ups and downs assiduously, you are in a tiny minority. The federal budget sequestration is in the spotlight of media coverage… perhaps even hyped. By contrast, carbon sequestration lurks deep in the policy shadows.

Despite the major difference in public attention, the two share much in common. Here’s a notional list of similarities (which almost certainly could be improved upon):

Consequential. Both types of sequestration matter. $85 billion dollars, even measured against a $4 trillion dollar federal budget, isn’t chump change… especially when considered as a fraction of discretionary spending, which totals only $1 trillion per year, and especially given that we’re almost 40% into the 2013 federal fiscal year. And carbon sequestration, to capture a significant fraction of the excess carbon annually inserted into the atmosphere, would require an infrastructure (and a corresponding dollar investment) that is a sizable fraction of the infrastructure needed to extract and burn fossil carbon in the first place.

Unprecedented. Neither type of sequestration has much of a track record, especially when applied on such a massive scale. Since human institutions and individuals work most successfully only after considerable practice and trial-and-error learning, it’s not clear that either of these colossal social experiments will end particularly well.

Somewhat mysterious/poorly understood. For this same reason, there’s as much or more unknown about how either process will turn out as there is that can be confidently predicted. Both probably appear more likely to be effective in theory than they’ll prove to be in practice. In fact, analysis of both has uncovered more than enough disruption and dysfunction to go around. Scholars will be analyzing the mistakes for years.

At best, a cosmetic fix to bad behavior. Here’s where it begins to hurt. Both sequestrations address symptoms as opposed to the problem’s root cause. The budget sequester was supposed to be a last-ditch method for forcing both political parties to work together to address fundamental fiscal imbalances in U.S. budgets… imbalances not just in so-called discretionary spending (defense and civilian) but also the much larger problems posed by entitlements (social security, medicare, welfare) and by flawed tax structures. Carbon sequestration is offered as a way to mitigate the worst side effects of our world’s over-dependence on fossil fuels. Both types of sequestration were supposed to be so odious that they would drive all of us to better behavior. But the causes of these problems lie much more in our imperfect human nature (wanting something-for-nothing, shirking responsibility and other ingrown character flaws too numerous to mention and too obvious to bear repeating). Though better solutions are indeed on offer, we lack the self-discipline needed to do the right thing.

In this latter respect, each type of sequestration has much in common with liposuction.

Divisive. Given all these realities, it shouldn’t be surprising that sequestration of both types promotes political controversy. In each case, it’s easy to justify and to find fault with the approach, to see how sequestration connects with other political agendas, both noble and nefarious, to develop and hold to conspiracy theories, and worse. Sequestration feeds the partisan flame raging across our land today.

The pernicious part. Finally, pursuing either form of sequestration does its greatest damage on the human psyche, particularly that of our nation’s political, economic, and scientific leaders but also the public at large.… it reinforces the bankrupt idea that this is the best we can do. This notion… that we aren’t intellectually or physically or spiritually able to show more self-control, take a longer view of our national goals and needs, and recognize that we’re all in this together and need to cooperate to dig ourselves out of a common predicament…  is potentially the most destructive piece of all.

(written while sequestered in my office…)

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