An issue that is continually in the press and features hot-button political and scientific issues is the wide-range of topics that fall underneath the broader banner of climate change. Whether it is the extinction of species and the destruction of their habitats, or the melting of the icebergs and the shifting of weather patterns in certain regions of the globe, most anything is seen as a sign of (or against) climate change.
Climate change refers to the consequences resulting from man-made activities on Earth such as industrialization and usage of fossil fuels. Climate change proponents believe that the increased rate of carbon release into the atmosphere, through industrial processes and concomitant with deforestation, is warming the planet, creating a greenhouse effect that is trapping more of the sun’s heat and causing the gradual rise in temperatures, melting of the ice caps, and the deaths of plants and animal species too slow to adapt to this change.
Opponents of climate change see it as a hoax or a conspiracy to defraud or undermine the first-world nations or to simply force people to live in ways they would rather not. Climate change deniers cite a range of their own evidence against climate change and many note that change is perpetual and continual in the history of the Earth. While this may be true, it conveniently ignores the impact of industrialization and human development projects on the world’s climate.
Being a charged political issue, climate change is an important policy point for many of the western democracies – with some parties actively promoting anti-climate change legislation and others opposing it – but it is also an important topic of consideration for developing nations, particularly China and India. A recent public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center found that climate change and the Islamic State were seen as the two greatest threats to the world today.
Residents of 13 countries surveyed ranked climate change as the greatest threat to their national security while 17 countries surveyed placed ISIS at the top of their concerns list. Jacob Poushter, Pew senior researcher and a co-author of the poll’s results, cited the polarized political nature of climate change in the United States as marking it out differently from other nations surveyed, “[t]he stark partisan divide between those on the left and the right means there is a large portion in the United States that doesn’t see climate change as a threat,” while citizens in Latin American countries were deeply worried about climate change according to Paula Caballero, who notes: “In Latin America the impacts of climate change both in terms of extreme events as well as the intensity and frequency of events has really gained momentum.” United States President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris Accords was condemned by many world leaders and is seen as a major setback for collective climate change action. Former US Vice President Al Gore, a longtime believer in climate change and anti-climate change legislation, met with President Trump after the 2016 election at the behest of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
In an interview with CNN, Al Gore stresses that he did talk with Trump extensively about climate change, but that his entreaties apparently bore no fruit. Without diving into the specifics of their conversation, Gore said his main worry was that other nations would follow the United States lead and leave the Paris Accord, “I was worried that other countries might use it as an excuse to pull out themselves…But I was gratified when the next day the entire rest of the world doubled down on the commitment to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, and then in this country, so many governors and mayors and business leaders said, ‘We’re still in.'”
Much of the debate in the United States focuses on whether the phenomenon is real or not. NASA offers some useful information on its website with regard to how scientists measure and determine whether or not climate change is happening or has happened. Using Earth-orbiting satellites, scientists are able to gather data on temperature variations and fluctuations at a continual rate and, combining this data with ice cores drawn from Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the known scientific quantity of carbon and its ability to trap and retain heat, scientists are able to detect a rapid increase in the temperature of the Earth when compared with samples from previous climate epochs.
Among the phenomena cited by NASA is the sea’s nearly 8 inch rise in level, a 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit rise in the Earth’s average temperature, warming oceans with the top layer of water showing a .32 degrees Fahrenheit increase since measurements in 1969, shrinking and collapsing ice sheets, glacial retreat, the diminishing levels of Arctic Sea ice, more frequently occuring extreme weather events and rising levels of acidifcation in the ocean, to name a few. A report from Ashley Strickland writing for CNN, “Earth to warm 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, studies say,” references a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change that, “…analyzed past emissions of greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels to show that even if humans suddenly stopped burning fossil fuels now, Earth will continue to heat up about two more degrees by 2100. It also concluded that if emissions continue for 15 more years, which is more likely than a sudden stop, Earth’s global temperature could rise as much as 3 degrees.” Scientists involved with the study say that this warming will continue, even if all anti-climate change proposals were to be enacted today, “Even if we would stop burning fossil fuels today, then the Earth would continue to warm slowly.”
Yale economist William Nordhaus proposed the 2 degree mark as a red line that, if crossed, means bad things for planet Earth: “If we surpass that mark, it has been estimated by scientists that life on our planet will change as we know it. Rising seas, mass extinctions, super droughts, increased wildfires, intense hurricanes, decreased crops and fresh water and the melting of the Arctic are expected. The impact on human health would be profound. Rising temperatures and shifts in weather would lead to reduced air quality, food and water contamination, more infections carried by mosquitoes and ticks and stress on mental health.” Global initiatives such as the Paris Accord aim to lessen and eliminate the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels through the implementation of and research into alternative energy methods, some of which have existed for some time. Solar farms and wind farms are among those solutions, as well as a range of other devices both designed to mitigate the impact of climate change and prevent it from worsening.
The main task of the international community right now is to balance China, India, and other developing nations need to industrialize and improve their domestic economies with the global concern of climate change and the impact that irresponsible development would have on that. Helping these nations move away from fossil fuels while simultaneously assisting in their economic development is the challenge facing the first world nations that also need to compete in a global economy. Carbon taxes and emission controls can only do so much if a neighboring state completely disregards these norms, and that is why the Paris Accord and the United States leaving it has impacted the climate change debate in a way that may be strange for most Americans. Abrogating this agreement is a declination of power in the sense that the United States does not want to lead the charge for solutions because it does not believe there is a problem, at least with this administration.
The problem with the entire nation entering and exiting agreements of a multilateral nature every time the presidential administration changes is that it incentivizes defection by other players, some of whom may be seemingly inconsequential but whose defection is nonetheless detrimental to the task of multilateral, unified, global action. It benefits nations to lead from within instead of standing outside without, and the United States finds itself in this unenviable position after leaving the Paris Accord. President Trump’s charge to find an agreement that is “better” for America may leave the world at risk for a bad deal entirely – and America is very much a part of the world. The time for de-politicizing the climate change debate is already here and needs to be heeded because, at best, it’s all made-up and we end up driving electric cars and getting our power from wind farms.
At worst the planet is doomed and species of plants and animals are going to die in numbers not seen since the last asteroid. Climate change, at its core, is a debate about what impact industrialization has had on the environment and, if any impact, is that consequence continuing and is it detrimental to our future. The scientific consensus is overwhelming in this regard – humanity has had an impact on its environment, and not all for the good. Now if only humanity can collectively save itself from its past mistakes.