This is paper I wrote for my course on Global Climate Change for Professor Bill Hewitt during the NYU Summer Intensive Certificate on Global Affairs. The question he posed to us was how to create a comprehensive solution to the changes happening to our climate. The assigned reading was Al Gore's "Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis," which I highly recommend to anyone with any interest in this topic!
Human Potential for Protecting the Earth (H.O.P.E.):
A Proposal for Solving Global Climate Change
Tackling a topic like global climate change is no easy task. As a matter of fact, it seems to just about the most difficult task this generation will ever face. Some may argue that conflicts in the Middle East, worldwide poverty or disparity of resources are the most difficult tasks we face globally. Rest assured each of these is undeniably linked with the way we treat our planet and its reaction to our abuse. In the following paper I plan to address the substantial issue of global climate change, revealing some of the problems for handling it and proposing a systematic road-map to solving it. I will introduce the problems in a three-fold manner, beginning with a lack of support by the general public, following with a fragmentation of efforts for progressive change and ending with weak policy and economic incentive. After addressing such upsetting problems, it is necessary to offer some optimistic and realistic solutions. These solutions will be proposed in a deductive manner, wherein each should follow logically behind its predecessor. The solutions will utilize avenues such as media resources, education, economic incentives and market instruments.
To begin we must first understand what global climate change actually is and what it entails. Global climate change is not synonymous with global warming, although they are closely connected. Global climate change is a sort of reaction to global warming; however, it is a reaction that then feeds positively back into the system which increases global warming. For example, global warming is causing the melting of the glaciers, a phenomenon of global climate change. Greater surface temperature is increasing the average temperature of the troposphere, inducing ice melt. However, when glaciers melt they flow into the ocean. This reduces the earth’s albedo, because ice is a reflective for solar rays but water is an absorbent. This increased absorbency of solar heat further increases warming of the ocean and subsequently, global warming. This relationship is known as a positive feed-back loop and may be seen through many other examples between global warming and global climate change.
So now we must ask ourselves, what causes global warming if it seems to be the catalyst for such important global transformations? The answer is increased greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and “F-gases.” Because carbon dioxide is the most prevalent of these emissions, and because of the limitations of this paper, I am choosing to focus solely on carbon dioxide throughout the remainder. Carbon dioxide also seems to be the most controversial topic, in that, the general public continues to be confused as to where this increase in carbon dioxide is coming from. Most people know that driving gas-guzzling cars and leaving your air conditioning running while you’re away is bad for the environment, but the extent of awareness seems to stop there. Regardless of the plethora of information available from peer-reviewed scientists on the anthropogenic causes of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, there still appears to be a debate as to if humans carry the weight of this burden. Why is this? The simple answer is money. Smart, informed people with money and with interest in keeping that money have waged campaigns in sustaining the voting public in a net of confusion about carbon emissions. As Al Gore states in his book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, “Powerful industries affected by the proposed climate crisis solutions have used all the political tools at their disposal in opposition” (352). This, along with a broad complacency and contentment for “life as usual,” is the reason that there has been an overall lack in support on behalf of society for facing the climate change issue.
The why of a movement against concern over global climate change has been addressed, and we’ve seen how its effects create confusion about the causes of climate change, the next step is to ask how. How were these denialists able to disseminate such a convincing argument for mistrusting science? The answer is a confederacy. The aligned interests shared by the leaders of conglomerates working in fossil-fuel dependent systems, extracting, producing or transporting it, have united forces. With the clear goal of preserving capital, they have been able to make swift and strategic moves countering global climate change awareness. This is precisely what the progressive side is lacking. Because the environmentalists are working through mediums which are inherently protracted, peer-reviewed papers and creating consensus amongst scientific opinion, they are consistently out-maneuvered by the coalition of oil connoisseurs. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the mechanisms that are in place slowing the scientific process down are necessary to extract the most accurate information possible. Therefore, this system cannot be dramatically altered. However, the fragmentation that continues to exist amid interest groups trying to remedy this inequality is also at fault. If one is to “Google” global climate change solutions, besides noting that the first link is strategically by Chevron, he or she will see a long dissociated list of organizations. And although diversity is important in just about any other arena, it hasn’t worked well so far for progressives in global climate change. The fragmented environmental causes that operate in divorced realms of influence are no competition for the “well-oiled” machine that is industry interest.
A result of this fragmentation is an overall inability for environmental groups to sufficiently engage the public and successfully lobby policy makers for effective change. Legislation, if it even makes it through the jaws of Congress, is often watered down and ineffectual. In some cases, environmental legislation does more harm than good because there is the “feeling” that enough is being done, regardless of whether that is actually the case. Because policy makers are not one hundred percent behind it, environmental protection laws frequently offer little incentive for compliance and lack the regulation needed to induce significant change. It is for each of these key reasons, undoubtedly there are also others, that global climate change is not a priority in the United States of America. And rather than dwell on the depressing fact that our world is heating up, rising an estimated 1.8-4.0 degrees Celsius in the coming century according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, this generation must be charged with the responsibility of how we are going to change that statistic. For that purpose, I will now outline a systematic plan for combating global climate change in the coming decades.
A systematic plan must inherently have several components built into it. Aside from having a complete understanding of the issue, which is described above, it must take approaches that are clear-cut and progressively follow one another. My systematic road-map proceeds as follows: renovation in education and a revolution in media spurs a shift in public sentiment, which modifies personal responsibility and spurs policy change, ultimately resulting in economic incentives. Economic incentives will then loop back around and fuel more revolutionary media. My road-map aims to address all of these criteria and follow a logical, albeit unconventional, train of thought.
The first logical step to addressing global climate change is to use the medium that is generally the most accepting of it: the classroom. Although global climate change has been refuted by certain academics, the checks-and-balances system that the scientific evidence must go through lends itself to being widely recognized in the academic community. Therefore, let us begin there. Educating children and youth about the effects of global climate change, and what they can do to help prevent it, may percolate through the household and reach other family members. Hopefully, educating this demographic will also prevent them from making the same mistakes that have been committed before their generation. But beyond the obvious educational steps we can take in grammar schools, let us think of what approaches can be made more immediately to retroactively educate people that are old enough to vote and substantially direct their households. Strategically, the United States is in a unique position regarding education because of the recent economic recession it has faced. More young adults and mid-career professionals are deciding to return to universities across the country to continue their education. This is an excellent window for the progressive front of global climate change to disseminate accurate information and excite individuals about the opportunities that exist in promoting this cause. As mid-level professionals and college graduates realize the shift that is occurring towards energy to be more “green,” they will begin to seek careers that allow them to apply environmentalist philosophies. Here we see direct economic incentives for individuals moving into an emerging market, renewable energies and carbon monitoring. I will touch on these further along in the paper.
Response towards global climate change must simultaneously be transformed in the media. This is a tricky scenario because although the media may direct the public’s attention in specific directions, it is also manipulated by what people want to hear. This creates a closed cycle of influence where both mediums cause and affect each other simultaneously. The question then is how to pierce this positive feedback loop and inject through the media revolutionary ideas concerning global climate change. What it takes is the aptitude of a handful of individuals with some manifestation of power. This power can derive from stardom, affluence, intelligence or any number of other factors. In fact, processes like this one have already begun with individuals such as Al Gore and his publication “An Inconvenient Truth.” Or take an ordinary and concerned citizen like Jody Williams, who after utilizing resources like email received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on banning landmines. This example demonstrates that media does not only include the more commonly considered traditional forms, such as newspapers and broadcasts, but is now much more encompassing. Media manifests itself through international websites and blogs, through podcasts and independent radio. All of these channels must be utilized should the progressive movement against global climate change have any influence on public opinion. These are precisely the catalysts that must be used to tempt media coverage in order to draw attention to global climate change, there just needs to be more of them.
Another way of using the media to address the “life as usual” mentality practiced by the majority of North Americans is fundamentally different than the first. Historically, fear-mongering has been a tactic used by politicians to entice their population’s support for activities from compliance to invasion. The truth of the matter is that it is a highly successful tool in achieving an ends, albeit not always ethical. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and perhaps ethicists will overlook the methodology in light of the greater good. Frankly, the world does have reason to be scared and they should be aware of that fact. The proposal in this section is to replicate the denialysts stance in creating fear about a lack of oil, but instead making it a fear over the drastic climate changes that are exponentially more eminent. This methodology uses media in order to uproot our next topic, public sentiment. If people are scared enough, they will start making the necessary changes to slow global warming, now.
A shift in public sentiment is an underlying requirement for all subsequent steps to follow. It is essentially the most necessary of all the steps. Media is only important because it can elicit this shift. As was noted above, it is only as influential as the public allows it to be. Public sentiment can be seen as the tube connecting two bulbs of an hourglass. At the top there is media and education, which fed through public sentiment, produces personal responsibility and policy change. So what does public sentiment entail? Is it just about being aware that global warming is occurring or does it include something more? Peace Corps volunteers are stewards to preventing global warming. They focus on issues that directly contribute to global climate change, such as preventing “slash and burn” farming techniques and using green manures instead of chemical fertilizers. But volunteers are trained not to just teach how to plant green manures, they are trained to teach why they are important. Because if a farmer in southern Paraguay does not understand why she is planting green manures, she will probably not continue to do it long after the volunteer is gone. Comprehending the “why” is crucial in producing a shift in mind-set that induces habitual action. And habitual action is absolutely necessary in solving the global climate crisis.
North Americans consume too much. They waste too much and they do it cheaply. This must change. According to the interactive graphic provided by the Financial Times, the United States has only recently taken backseat to China in the main producer of carbon emissions, with an astounding 5.862 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2009. Personal responsibility is an important contributor to reducing greenhouse gases and slowing global warming. The average American added 23.5 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2007. There are an estimated 310,232,863 of us. That makes for a whole lot of carbon. We have the “largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of $46,400” and continue to be seen throughout the world as a dominant power. The change must begin with us. If Americans helped reduce the 13.1% that transportation currently contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing electric cars, markets would adjust to the increase in demand by decreasing the price. This will contribute to an even further reduction in the transport footprint. The same will happen with renewable energy sources, such as household solar photovoltaic panels. There have been significant movements in North America for eating products grown locally and reducing the emissions that are produced by transporting goods nationally and internationally. An even larger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the production and processing of meat. Not only does the methane gas produced in the ruminant stomachs of cattle and sheep contribute to total emissions, but the decomposition cattle waste also emits significant amounts into the atmosphere. In addition to this, the area needed to raise cattle depletes natural carbon dioxide sinks and puts pressure on land use so that farmers and other industries further contribute to deforestation. In 2009, 26.9 billion pounds of beef was consumed in the United States. Changing eating habits and consuming less or no beef at all will decrease supplier’s quota and greatly reduce greenhouse gas contributions. A shift in public sentiment will change society’s reaction to these digressions and informally enforce a public “code of conduct” regarding individual’s personal responsibility towards the environment. It is precisely what has happened with littering, and now there are laws against it.
This moves into the next topic of public sentiment eventually changing policy. In international law there exists law that is known as “customary law.” This is law that has not necessarily been codified but nonetheless exists because it is universally accepted and abided by. Although customary principles may apply to certain changes necessary for modifying global climate change, such as not leaving your lights on when you’re not home, it will certainly not address them all. Which is why policy change is required for enforcing gross crimes against environment, both nationally and abroad. One can rest assured that sufficient public sentiment towards reducing global warming does not yet exist in the United States. This is exemplified through the delay of legislation such as the American Climate and Energy Security Act, more commonly known as Waxman and Markey bill, in the United States Senate. However, regionally public attention is growing and in places such as California, pressures from interests groups and environmental lobbyists have produced change in public policy. A good example of this would be the California Assembly Bill 32 (AB32) which establishes the “first-in-the-world comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gases.” Serious progressive coalitions aligned, pooling resources from The Sierra Club to the Environmental Defense Fund, in order to rally support for this bill. This is an excellent example of the results of a unification of efforts that is aforementioned in this paper. The bottom line is that without their constituents behind them, legislatures will rarely have the fortitude to stand up and vote for environmental legislation, even if they know it is the right thing to do. This further reinforces the importance of public opinion on policy activity.
So in what ways can policy activity produce economic incentives to create a “Green Revolution?” The easiest concept to begin with is “Cap-and-Trade.” Cap-and-Trade is “an approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions that sets a maximum level (a cap) for a region or nation that requires participating emitters to obtain permits to pollute. Companies or governmental jurisdictions with extra pollution permits can sell or trade them to parties whose permits are insufficient to cover their full emissions.” Cap-and-Trade is the most efficient way to get money into the hands of entrepreneurs that have shown expertise in the development of green technologies. These entrepreneurs will then use that capital in continuing to create innovative developments for even greener solutions. Cap-and-Trade policy, such as that advocated in the Waxman and Markey legislation, is supremely more economical than creating a tax solution for emissions because it avoids funds being tied up in bureaucratic channels and delivers them straight to the source of innovation. As a matter of fact, whereas some Californians were concerned that environmental policy was going to have negative effect on the local economy there, researchers are saying just the opposite. “The Air Resources Board's Nichols says that research shows California is ready to weather this transition. ‘This is the direction that our economy is moving in anyway, in the direction of more cleantech and more clean energy related jobs,’ she says.” Cap-and-Trade is in direct response to other “inherently inefficient and cumbersome ways to control pollution,” which failed “to deliver many of the environmental benefits promised.” These are most likely understood as weakly enforced taxes on toxin over-producers, which are seen by some as a hindrance to the divinity of deregulated market forces. This paper advocates a balance between the two, supporting market driven concepts such as Cap-and-Trade, but with strong regulatory capabilities made possible through legislation.
In conclusion, the “Green Revolution” has not yet taken place because of idleness in public support, fragmentation of progressive efforts and insufficient policy and economic incentive. Moving into the next decade, environmentalists and activists alike must focus on increasing education and radicalizing media concerning global climate change. They must do this in order to awake public sentiment and thereby entice personal responsibility and policy change. Finally, this policy change must be directed at laws which produce serious economic incentives such as “Cap and Trade.” Through the successful use of each of these avenues, we may rest assured that there is hope for the future of our global community.
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