The issue of climate change is one that concerns all living things on this planet. Humans, beings the most influential species on the health of the environment, its deterioration should concern us above all others. Even with an overwhelming scientific consensus on the fact that human energy consumption is causing climate change to occur, no significant actions have been taken to address this issue. Why is it that the eventual destruction of the biosphere and the end of humanity are not good enough incentives for our elected officials to act? The short answer is money, but there are other social, economic, and evolutionary factors contributing to our inaction. The financial motive arises from the millions of dollars that the fossil fuel industry spends on lobbying and in direct donations to political campaigns to ensure that no meaningful environmental regulations get passed in Congress. The social reasons are due to the failure of the media to educate the public on the objective science on climate change and how we are tittering on the edge of irreversible environmental catastrophe right now. The economic reasons have to do with the false perception that the economy will be damaged irreparably if we switch to clean energy. The evolutionary reasons have to do with how humans are incapable of dealing with long term problems due to our evolutionary development. All these factors contribute to why we have not completely abandoned fossil fuels and invested fully in renewable energy sources in order to address climate change in a meaningful way.
Before diving into the reasons for the legislative inaction, it is important to discuss the scientific evidence for climate change and the repercussions that humanity will face if we don’t act to stop man-made climate change. First, on the scientific evidence, according to a study by Cook et al, which analyzed 11,944 climate science abstracts from 1991-2011, found that, “97.1% of the papers endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming” (Cook, 2013). Reviews from the last decade of all the meta-analysis research on the scientific consensus on man-made climate change is as follows: The Oreskes study in 2004 found that 100% of climate scientists agreed, Doran in 2009 found that 97% agreed, Anderegg in 2010 found 97% agreed, Verheggen is 2014 found 91% agreed, Stenhoise in 2014 found 93% agreed, and Carlton in 2015 found 97% agreed (Fragoso, 2016). All these studies put the number above 90%. But why is this relevant? The reason is that in any given field, whether it be economics, biology, mathematics, or climate science, the overwhelming agreement of the experts in a certain field is what gives an idea its credibility. The ability of a theory to survive repeated testing by multiple scientists and produce the same results consistently is what we call “settled science”.
We can also look at the scientific evidence directly, which shows that since the industrial revolution, we have seen an unprecedented increase in global greenhouse gas levels. According to an IPCC assessment on climate change from 2007, from data gathered by ice core samples, we see that CO2 levels (parts per million) in the 1700s was below 275ppm, but now in the 2000s it has risen all the way to 375+ppm, and methane, which is even more potent of a heat trapping agent, has risen from 750ppb in the 1700s to 1750ppb in the 2000s (IPCC Report, 2007). We have seen an increase in extreme weather events all over the world due to climate change, we can examine the temperature highs and lows in America, according to a study by Meehl et al, record highs and lows in the U.S have tracked with the predictions of climate scientists, that is, summers have gotten hotter and winters have gotten colder (Meehl et al, 2009). Increases in highs and lows impacts all other weather events like the frequency and harmfulness of tornadoes, blizzards, floods, droughts and other natural phenomena take place.
Why Stop Climate Change?
Now that we have established the scientific basis for man-made climate change, we can discuss why we need to act to prevent climate change. The most relevant and relatable factor is how climate change will effect food supplies. Food is essential for human survival, and specifically food crops like rice, wheat, sugarcane, pumpkin, corn, cassava, soybeans, hay, potatoes, and cotton are a way of life for most people on the planet. In Eastern and Southern Europe as well as most of Asia are completely dependent on farming to provide food for their populations, as well as jobs. If the climate continues to warm and lower crop yields, we will see famines all over the world and we saw in Syria the kind of destabilization it can cause. According to a study by Colin Kelley, a researcher at UCSB, “a record drought, which ravaged Syria in from 2006 to 2010, was likely stoked by ongoing manmade climate change and that the drought may have helped propel the 2011 Syrian uprising”, a point that was also made by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, and prioritized combating climate change in his campaign platform.
Collin proceeded to explain the impacts of the drought, “the drought — the worst ever recorded in the region — destroyed agriculture in northern Syria’s breadbasket, driving dispossessed farmers to cities, where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011. The conflict has since evolved into a complex multinational war that has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced millions” (Cohen, 2015). The Syrian crisis has spiraled out of control and gotten significantly worse since 2015, although there were religious and geopolitical factors that played into the war, the original destabilization was caused in part by climate change. Knowing this, it would be best to prevent this type of destabilization in other parts of the world. The US military pleaded with the Obama administration to take action to stop climate change because they believe that civil wars and regional conflicts will hurt the national security of America as well. The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review released in March of 2014, “drew a direct link between the effects of global warming — like rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns — and terrorism” (Davenport, 2014). Plus, states like California have suffered from drought caused water shortages as well, so it is already effecting us domestically. If the situation gets bad enough with natural resources for a country like China or Russian, they may invade a NATO ally to plunder resources out of desperation, which might land us in a nuclear war scenario with Russia. As we can see climate change has immensely far reaching and potentially catastrophic consequences for the U.S.
Now that we have established climate change is caused by man and the dire consequences that may result from climate change to the U.S and the world, we can discuss why despite all these credible threats, no significant action has been taken to stop climate change. We shall begin by reviewing the current U.S policy to combat climate change. The EPA is the most prominent face of fighting climate change, so we shall examine their proposals. According to their website, the EPA is primarily focused on reduction and data collection. Reducing greenhouse emissions, through “vehicle greenhouse gas rules”, and “voluntary energy and climate programs” for the private sector, and “greening” the EPA. They also have a section about “adapting to climate change” (epa.gov, 2017). In other words the current administration is doing nothing at all to address the core cause of climate change; what needs to be done is a full transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy. It is no surprise, because Donald Trump has stated that he does not believe in “man-made” climate change (Kantor, 2017). And the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued the government three times over the Clean Power Plan that Obama enacted. Pruitt is also a climate change denier.
The primary reasons for the legislative inaction is money in politics, meaning the fossil fuel industry and other related industries who stand to suffer financially from environmental regulations have donated money to politicians in both parties to make sure that no significant plans to combat climate change ever passes through both the House and the Senate. A study done by professors Gilens and Page from Princeton and North Western University, examined the extent to which the American political system responds to the will of the American people compared to the will of interest groups that represent corporations and wealthy private interests. After their analysis of 1779 las that passed, from 1979 to 2002, they concluded that the needs of the people at the 90th percentile of income and their allied lobbyists were satisfied by lawmakers over 90% of the time, and the will of the average American and of, “mass-based interest groups” had a, “near zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy” (Gilens & Page, 2014). This study demonstrates the enormous influence that big money donors have on legislative outcomes; this is the case for energy policy as well. According to priceofoil.org, the oil, gas, and coal industry spent $151,437,335 in lobbying in 2014, and they received $41,840,275,998 (41.8 billion) in federal production and exploration subsidies in 2014. That is an 11,900% return on investment. So it is plainly evident that the industry has a death grip on congress due to the corrupting influence of money in politics. The industry influence over Republicans is much greater than Democrats, but corporate Democrats, like Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin, also vote against any attempt to regulate the fossil fuel industry. Proving their true allegiance is with their donors and not the best interests of the American people.
The social reasons for inaction is the failure of the media to impart accurate and objective climate science data through credible sources to the American public. The media’s obsession with neutrality has damaged the public support for climate change. Cable news channels like CNN, MSNBC, and CBS, routinely play the neutrality game when it comes to climate change as they do with all other things. Their crucial mistake is equating neutrality with objectivity. The job of a journalists is to impart accurate and truthful information backed up by credible evidence to the American people, so we can make rational decision regarding a given issue. But our media does something different, they usually say, scientists say climate change is real, and climate skeptics say it’s not, who’s right? We have no idea. Which does a disservice to the audience because they make it seem as if both sides have equal credibility. This is far from the case, as we have reviewed, over 96% (on average) of the climate scientists, the experts on this issue, agree that climate change is man-made, while the other side is filled with politicians, engineers, economists, CEOs, and other non-experts who have no authority on the issue, with financial investments in fossil fuels.
Case in point, NBC had a segment on climate change in 2014, where they brought on Marsha Blackburn, a Republican politician with no scientific background and serious energy industry funding, to debate Bill Nye, an actual scientist with some knowledge on the issue. Blackburn denied the scientific consensus, and denied that climate change is even occurring and Nye pointed out how wrong she was, as expected, and David Gregory, the “journalist” never said a word to support either side. Proving the cowardice of the press. A true journalist would have pointed out that Nye was right and that man-made climate change was a fact, but he failed to do so because of the obsession with neutrality. Mainstream news is deathly afraid of being called liberal, so they never take a side on anything. It is also quite disturbing that accepting scientific facts is considered “liberal”. Science is based on empirical data, not ideology. The fact that some liberals respect and base their world views on science is a happy accident. For anyone watching this segment who is not scientifically informed, it would have seemed like there was still a debate on this issue, when there is not. Science has won out and the energy industry has lost. But due to the media’s refusal to present an objective conclusion, the public is gravely misled and it explains why so many people still have doubts about whether climate change is man-made. According to a Gallup poll in 2016, only 65% of Americans recognize man-made climate change (Jones, 2016), that number would be above 90% if the media did its job correctly. And this doubt is used by politicians to justify their votes against fossil fuel regulation, claiming that the American people don’t want action on climate change.
The economic reasons for the inaction on climate change stems from the idea that combating climate change will destroy the U.S economy. It is argued by many different people on both sides that a switch from fossil fuels to renewables would greatly harm the U.S economy. As Selin et al points out, in the debate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Republican Senators Byrd and Hagel put forth a bill to stop the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol citing that it would cause significant damage to the US economy in terms of jobs (Salin & VanDeveer, 2012). The main arguments are the cost of transition will be devastating for the economy, and that it would cost millions of jobs for people who work in the fossil fuel industry. Both of which are weak and untenable arguments, here’s why; According to a 2017 report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), “Clean energy grew at a record pace as the United States added 22GW of capacity — the equivalent of 11 Hoover Dams — to the grid from renewable sources last year, significantly trumping new fossil fuel additions, according to a new report”. This rapid adoption of renewables has been attributed to the improvements in renewable technology that has lowered the cost, and the decline of coal-fired power plants since 2008 (Worland, 2017).
It is true that the initial costs to build the infrastructure for renewables like solar and wind maybe somewhat expensive, as outlined by Timmons et al from Tufts University, but that is why we have government subsidies. Switching from fossil fuels to renewables has long term positive externalities that cannot be quantified in a single balance sheet or annual budget, things like stopping crop failures due to warming temperatures and stopping civil wars due to resources scarcity, cannot easily be converted to monetary values, not to mention enhanced air quality due to unpolluted air from coal powered power plants and the reduction of healthcare costs associated with those benefits. As far as the loss of jobs go, yes, fossil fuel jobs will be lost and so should they be. Who would work for an industry that pollutes the world we all share and poisons our children? No one. The government can step-in to make sure that workers in the current oil, gas, and coal, industries are trained and given jobs in the renewable energy sector, which will require new workers to build new infrastructure and maintain functional plants. As mentioned above, the renewables industry is growing faster than fossil fuels, so jobs will not be an issue. And we can look to Germany for an example of how well the switch to renewables can work, as of the 15th week of 2017, Germany drew 51.6% of its energy from renewables (Parkinson, 2017), which is a world record in renewable energy usage. Germany’s economy has grown since they decided to switch over to renewables in 2000. It has been a slow transition but a lucrative one for the German people. It can be done in America as well, if the politicians had the determination and enough public pressure to push the clean energy agenda forward.
Evolutionary Reasons for Inaction
Lastly, the evolutionary reasons why we have seen no action on climate change is due to the way human beings evolved and how that impedes public mobilization. In fact, it’s not only human being, but most other species on the planet. In short, our brains have evolved to respond to short term tangible threats, as opposed to long term intangible concepts. In modern society, humans try to get jobs, make friends, and find a mate to advance the most primal of evolutionary urges, namely, food, shelter, forming a tribe, and passing on genetic material to propagate the species. Fifty-thousand years out of Africa and no matter how advanced our technology has gotten, we are still trying to fulfill the same evolutionary impulses that our brains had programmed into them by nature millennia ago. Because, even though we live in the concrete jungle as opposed to the actual jungle, the structure and function of our brains, genetically speaking, have not changed at all in 200,000 years, since Homo sapiens arose as a separately identifiable species. And so remains the flaws that came with that structure and function; as Elke Weber, a psychology professor from Columbia University puts it, “In a way, it’s unfair to expect people, homo sapiens, to do this kind of monitoring, to do this kind of decision making, because we’re not wired for that,” (Harman, 2014), referring to the limits of the human brain to respond appropriately to a slowly unfolding threat like climate change.
If we examine an issue like Trump’s perceived racism and bigotry by millions of Americans, and how him becoming president lead to hundreds of protests across the country, we can see that many Americans have Mexican, and Muslim friends and they see Trump’s election as a threat to their “tribe”, so they react in outrage to fight against the threat. But on an issue like climate change, there are no mass protests on the street, or million women’s marches, even though climate change is a much bigger threat to us than Trump’s comments; climate change literally has the potential to end all life on this planet, inflicting many decades of human misery in the process. But, the threat from Trump seems more immediate to people because it plays to those evolutionary heart strings that are so primal to our being. A similar pattern is observed in our response to terrorism, as The Guardian explains, “Evolutionary responses favor real-time threats, not those that take place on an extended time scale. Shrinking Arctic ice cover, erratic changes in winter snow cover or rapid shifts in heat and cold don’t provide the same sense of threat as our fear of terrorist attacks or other bodily harm” (Bell, 2016); even though the probabilities of dying from a terror attack is much less than that of climate change, which is already effecting our daily lives, people are willing to sacrifice their liberties to feel safe, but not willing to act on climate change. We have a visceral evolutionary response to the threat of tangible physical harm, which is evoked by images of the 9/11 attack and the 7/7 bombing; we have no such equivalence to climate change. It might take an equally tragic climate disaster, which can be tied directly to climate change, to trigger this threat response toward climate change.
In summery, money in politics, the failure of the media, the deceptive economic arguments, and our evolutionary shortcomings, all play a role in preventing legislative action to combat climate change. The best way to solve this problem is to get private money out of politics i.e. campaign finance reform, and for scientists to criticize the media publicly when they engage in false equivocation. These two acts would end the dependence of politicians on the energy industry donations and force them to listen to the public, also the criticism aimed at the media will force them to stop doing false equivocation and present the scientific facts to the public in an objective manner. With more accurate media reporting, the public’s realization of how dangerous climate change is will increase and it would lead them to pressure their congress people to take action to protect their families and the planet. These would be the most practicable and feasible ways to get real substantive action on climate change.
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