Climate Change: A Race Against Time? Or Already Too Late?

It’s clear to me, after reading the World Bank’s report on climate change, that humanity faces a serious problem. Not that I wasn’t aware of it before – I’d known about it ever since An Inconvenient Truth hit theaters. Rising sea levels flooding coastal areas, causing mass emigration, competition for resources, and ethnic conflict. Crop failures. Extreme weather events becoming commonplace. Extinction of species, collapses of entire ecosystems due to acidified oceans and drought. And all it takes is a 4 degrees Celsius change in the global average temperature – which is already occurring as we speak.

Climate change doesn’t have the Hollywood-esque scare factor of say, global nuclear war (unless you count the atrocity The Day After Tomorrow) – it’s a lot easier to get worked up about the mass extermination of humanity and subsequent collapse of civilization than droughts in far-off countries and people’s timeshares getting wiped out by hurricanes. And arguably, that makes it all the more dangerous. It’s slow and insidious, manifesting its effects over time – the generations which began the process will, in all likelihood, never live to see its full effects. People worry about the immediate future – it’s human nature to neglect long-term risks in order to attain short-term goals, especially when we’re not even fully sure what those risks entail. We see this demonstrated in the USA and other countries which refuse to place restrictions on emissions on grounds of not wanting to hurt economic productivity, or that it will drive up fuel costs, or a myriad of other reasons. Reinforced by a small army of fossil fuel industry lobbyists and spokespeople, the idea persists that climate change is a myth, a scam by scientists for unknown purposes, and even if it is real, to do anything about it is unthinkable. This may seem hard to believe in the rarified intellectual atmosphere of Princeton University, but polls, cable news channels, and the actions of governments and politicians verify this belief. (For anecdotal evidence, in my small, rural hometown, it’s quite common for people to remark how “global warming” can’t be real, as there’s snow on the ground, therefore it is not warmer anywhere else on the planet.)

It’s also clear, from reading the scientific literature provided, that it may be too late to prevent some of the change from occurring, even if we were to stop contributing carbon to the atmosphere completely. Various solutions have been suggested, ranging from the practical (cap and trade) to the fantastic (geoengineering, with the potential for creating a whole new set of problems,) but have yet to be implemented. Even actual efforts to cut emissions by participating countries have been lackluster. And the truth of the matter is, as it currently stands, restricting emissions would have a negative impact on the economy – any costs incurred would be passed on to consumers. But does that justify potentially destroying the future for generations to come?

What should be done about climate change? Can anything be done? More appropriately, will anything be done? Is it too late to fix the problem, and humanity will suffer due to its own apathy and ignorance? Or will mankind pull together at the last second in this particular drama, and seek to collectively reduce emissions in the same manner now done with nuclear weapons – with an eye towards the future? What do you think? — Reed

23 thoughts on “Climate Change: A Race Against Time? Or Already Too Late?

  1. How about mitigating climate change by replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy? In my opinion, with energy consumption expected to continue growing in the near future, nuclear power is the best way to reduce our dependence on greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. Yes, renewable sources such as wind and solar would be ideal alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet none of them are as scalable and cheap as nuclear power, and both rely on the weather. Sure, nuclear does not come without the risk of catastrophic meltdown. How many fatalities did the Chernobyl accident leave, though? Maybe 10,000? Every year, there are more than 13,000 air pollution-related deaths linked to fossil-fuel power stations, according to the Clean Air Task Force (CATF). Not to mention occupational deaths related to coal power plants. Further, no matter how salient, nuclear meltdowns are nevertheless tail events. Focusing too much on the risks of nuclear energy prevents us from thinking about the virtually certain damage that is currently being done by fossil fuels.

  2. After reading the Report for the World Bank, Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided, I feel that I have a very good understanding of what the risks are and what could happen throughout the world if nothing is done to stop the climate from warming by such an extreme as 4°C. The rising sea levels, ocean acidification, ice loss, extreme temperatures—all of these pose a threat to the environment, and to the world population. It is clear that a 2°C temperature increase is better than a 4° C increase, but not how we can get there. I don’t see any advice offered to limit this temperature change.

    I think there is a large enough population throughout the world that understands certain steps should be taken in order to help the environment (even if the concept “global warming” isn’t clear to everyone). For example, the other day, I was walking around campus and saw a truck leaving the parking lot that emitted a huge cloud of thick, black smoke. It is this pollution that isn’t helping matters. Since it isn’t really feasible to revert back to preindustrial lifestyles, something else has to be done.

    While big changes like switching to nuclear or solar power (as sstrauss suggests) should eventually be taken, I think that smaller actions also need to be realized. One of the biggest problems in our society today is that many people have the mentality that “my neighbor will do it, so I don’t have to”. Everyone needs to start doing the little things (recycling, limited carbon emissions, etc.) if we are going to avoid catastrophic temperature increases.

  3. The task of addressing climate change is daunting. There will be profound consequences if the Earth heats up by 4℃. All nations will feel the impact but the distribution is unequally titled against many poor regions and nations. This means that the relative impact to countries like the United States and China, the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, will be less. Even if the rest of the world cooperates in trying to reduce emissions, without the cooperation of major emission countries, the general trend cannot be stopped. Climate change presents a dilemma that follows the idea of the tragedy of the commons. We share a common resource called the Earth. From an economic perspective, nations have no incentive in self-sacrificing and cutting emissions at the expense of their economy when others continue to exploit natural resources and emit emissions. When countries do choose to cut emissions, other countries get a free-rider effect. The Kyoto Protocol is a classic example with the United States not ratifying the treaty based on a lack of commitments from emerging nations including China.

    Switching from fossil fuels to nuclear power or renewable energy sources would be a good thing and part of the solution. Yet I believe there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we conceptualize our society. The energy demands of our consumption-based society are constantly increasing. Looking at alternative energy sources does not fundamentally resolve the problem. Maybe it is perhaps time to start thinking about how we can change our lifestyle and enter a new paradigm of human history.

  4. While I agree it is important for people to do the little things, it most likely won’t be enough because of two main reasons: not everyone will contribute and the definition of “little things” is different for everyone. Sure, people generally turn off the lights when they are not in the room, but how many people are willing to reduce their amount of driving or air travel? The aviation sector’s CO2 emissions currently exceed those of all except ten nations, and with air travel expected to rapidly increase, the sector’s emissions could comprise 10-15% of the global total within the next few decades.

    Thus, I think it’s going to take more than increasing efficiency and doing the little things. Sstrauss suggested increasing the use of nuclear power, which currently produces about 20% of US electricity. However, after Fukushima, it seems unlikely that nuclear is poised for rapid growth in the coming years. Another option is the replacement of coal power plants with natural gas power plants, which will reduce CO2 emissions by about half. Though the rate of methane leakage is not well known, it is nearly certain that natural gas is better than coal for electricity generation even if methane leakage occurs at the high end of the current range of estimates. Other options include continued development of renewable energy sources, carbon capture and sequestration, an expanded cap and trade system, and a smarter grid. If the world waits too long to begin cutting emissions, more drastic geoengineering measures, such as the injection of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, could potentially be necessary. Thus, it is in the best interests of society to do the little things and reduce dependence on fossil fuels to decrease GHG emissions sooner rather than later.

  5. I agree strongly with Michelle that while the little things are important and nice, the benefit they bring pales in comparison to the challenge that climate change presents to the future of our planet. I believe that the problem lies not in that not everyone will contribute or that people won’t do enough, but rather that the size of the problem is so monstrous that no amount of ‘little things’ can add up to turn the tides of climate change. Rather, I firmly believe, strong global action by all nations is necessary. The United Nations has convened a number of conferences to deal with the issue, most recently the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference, but no comprehensive agreement of any kind has come out of it. As it last stood, the conference ended with no treaty of any kind, and merely an agreement to reconvene for an agreement in 2015, with the goal of a treaty taking effect in 2020.

    The most significant agreement ever reached is the Kyoto protocol, which the United States, Canada, Russia, and numerous other global powers neglected to ratify, thus nullifying any effectiveness the protocol might have. Evidently, the world’s powers have failed to reach any significant agreement on climate change thus far, and I think this should be a major focus of advocacy and governmental efforts in the coming years. Without any comprehensive agreement signed by every developed nation in the world, we’ll continue to watch our ability to change the course of this tide slowly slip away until it’s too late.

  6. I recently came across an article about procrastination (most likely while I was procrastinating) and a recent study that is surprisingly relevant here: apparently, when we think about our future selves, we access a different part of a brain than we do when thinking about our current self – we effectively view our future self as a stranger, or a different person. I bring that up here because I think that this could possibly be something that applies to our national, and maybe even global consciousness. To answer your question about whether or not anything will be done, I believe that real action won’t be taken until the evidence is incontrovertible and well known amongst people. Without this impetus I believe that when choosing between the economic costs of preventative measures and the alternative of cheaper, more profitable processes, we will likely continue to defer to the present payoff than the potential future costs.

    It is possible, however, that we are quickly approaching this tipping point. For one, it appears as though there is a large amount of money going into developing environmentally friendly technologies – possibly a result of the late 20th century shift towards ‘being green’. This natural shift towards these practices could be helpful without the intervention of government policies. Better technology also means better predictions – as we continue to get better at predicting the effects of our actions we will have a harder time denying their possible negative effects.

  7. Though I certainly agree with Michelle and Aryeh in that the major global players must begin
    cooperating and attacking this problem head on, I do believe that @mremick:disqus
    raises a solid argument that is often dismissed as inconsequential. Governments
    are more likely to address the issue in a more productive manner, as seen with
    the string of disarmament agreements in the last 20 years and at the back end
    of the Cold War, if citizens refuse to accept the status quo on climate change
    intervention. The first step in this process is for global citizens to be
    educated on the issue and take steps to make a difference. These vague “steps”
    are less about directly affecting the climate change process and more about bringing
    this issue onto the front burner for as many influential people as possible. In
    his popular YouTube video, wonderingmind42, simplifies the case for addressing
    global warming head on as to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the “4
    degree world” that the World Bank report describes. Essentially, he claims that
    the risks of extreme climate change not addressed aggressively far outweigh the
    risks of addressing climate change with a multitude of policies and realizing
    that they have no impact or that the projections for climate change were
    exaggerated. Check out the video if you’re interested in his framing of this
    analysis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ

  8. I had the chance this past fall to hear a talk on the environment and the electricity sector in the US given by an engineer who had spent many years working in the oil industry and in energy more broadly. I know this talk was not part of the course but I bring it up because I think it related perfectly to the interplay between science and policy, though it spoke more to domestic policy than international. I also thought it might be interesting to present the issue as it’s viewed by engineers. There were two ideas we discussed in particular that I find interesting as it relates to this course: first, technology that could greatly slow the production of greenhouse gases in the US already exists and would not require as drastic a change as many believe; second, that in a country where private corporations control the energy sector, government intervention is required for the implementation of said technology to occur. There is no question that if the issue of climate change is to be properly addressed, it must involve some sort of international agreement with all the necessary enforcement and so on, but the feeling I got during the talk was that, as engineers, we’ve little control over the political climate or the feasibility of such a solution. In the meantime, a band-aid solution that at least slows the effects of climate change may not make for very inspiring speech material, but it is certainly better than no solution at all.

    When people think of “green” electricity, they generally picture wind farms, solar panels, or even nuclear reactors. While it is true that these are all carbon-neutral, and perhaps in the long-term the goal should be to have them replace more conventional sources of energy (ie fossil fuels), in the short- to mid-term, considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved through more modest changes. For example, over 35% of electricity generated in the US in 2012 came from coal. Replacing these coal-fired plants with natural gas plants, which, while still not carbon-neutral, are much cleaner and more efficient, would result in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas production in the US (I’m sorry not to have remembered any statistics from the talk, but I assure you the reduction was significant). With the development of directional drilling (also known as “fracking” – a topic for another day) the US has suddenly gained access to a ready supply of cheap natural gas that, perhaps most importantly, is domestic and doesn’t require dependence on any other country. Eventually, a combination of the rising price of oil and coal, international politics, and the sheer abundance of domestic natural gas will push businesses to invest in plants and infrastructure designed to handle natural gas instead of coal, but the overhead costs involved in such a switch are often prohibitive, and a company is taking a great risk in making that investment, hoping that conditions will continue to favour the natural gas industry in the future.

    What the speaker promoted was the idea that government policy could help to mitigate the risk involved in making these investments, not only through subsidies and financial incentives, but also by establishing a clear mandate for future energy policy. As an environmentalist, of course, he gave the opinion that the government has not only the ability but the responsibility to do so if they hope to combat climate change. He gave the example of a company choosing between upgrading a coal-fired plant so as to improve its efficiency or replacing it with a natural gas one. An upgrade has less overhead cost and provides a modest increase in profit – in other words, a safe investment. Replacing the plant requires an enormous amount of capital, but could be worth it in the long run if the cost of natural gas remains low. It comes with risk: for example, will the government introduce policy to ban or restrict “fracking,” making much of the natural gas extraction in the US either impossible or prohibitively expensive? Will they encourage exporting the gas or domestic consumption? There is so much uncertainty when it comes to energy policy in the US that it is difficult for corporations to take the risk. In countries like Canada, where electricity production and transmission is done by publicly-owned utility companies, decisions can be made for the future with less risk involved, but when the sector is privatized these risks must be considered.

  9. I feel as though your post overlooks a central aspect in the climate change debate. Mitigating climate change, and pursuing environmental sustainability in general, may not necessarily be a desirable goal for our current society. Although you post the dilemma as a competition between environment and economy, I do not think the topic is as simple as thinking long-term and preventing the globe against certain catastrophe or consuming more now, pursuing short term goals, and refusing higher energy prices. I feel this overlooks entirely whether or not mitigating climate change now is something that should actually be considered desirable, and the cost that reducing emissions really implies. This also poses a difficult problem about equity, for if we are to so strongly consider the well-being of future generations, how should we care for more disadvantaged people living today. Should we, for example, tell China it needs to stop burning coal, even though the economic development has the potential to lift millions out of poverty and hunger, all for the sake of future generations? Should we use more government funding for green energy if it means letting people live in poverty today so people in the future have less CO2 in the atmosphere? This may fall under your category of ‘short term goals,’ but I am not sure the goal of helping people in poverty should be secondary to preventing future generations from the challenges of climate change.

    From my perspective, it is generally accepted that climate change is occurring, although you claim that fossil fuel industry lobbyists are corrupting american people and policy makers into believing otherwise; I feel the real debate arises over the magnitude of the future effects of climate change, and the implications of what rising temperatures would mean across the globe. I am not sure it is fair to say that continuing to emit carbon destroys the future for generations to come, without any type of qualification. Even if we assume the trajectory and effects you present, we still fail to consider any future technology or development that could help address climate change related challenges. We also can not consider it to be definitely good to reduce emissions without considering the opportunity cost that comes with a loss to productivity, more costly energy, or funding to less carbon intensive energy production. Even if we are speaking for future generations, it would be difficult to say whether or not they would be ‘better off’ from reduced emissions. This would necessitate our ability to predict their society, technology, and preferences. Think for example of people in 1914 making decisions in our best interest. It is true that less carbon is better than more carbon, but it becomes more difficult when we ask whether less carbon is better than more carbon plus any production and innovation that is sacrificed with it.

    This is not to say I believe we should do nothing to address climate change, I do. However, I disagree with the presumption that climate change should be a paramount concern, or that moving away from cheaper and dirtier energy is an easy decision, held back only by limited will or governmental incompetence.

  10. You bring up several good points regarding the need to take climate change more seriously. It seems to me, however, that, at least in my experience, while particular areas of the country may be less willing to accept/are less educated about global warming, the general consensus on a national level is that it is occurring. That is to say, it is not just scientists or dedicated university students who are aware and willing to accept this, but that the general attitude is that it is something that should at least be on the table. Of course, this having been said, I do completely agree with you that the responses to this issue and the call for action against a lifestyle and set of choices that could greatly negatively affect future generations leave a lot to be desired. It is difficult to convince people to address a problem the consequences of which they might not directly have to deal with.

    More generally, however, from an ethical standpoint this brings up an important issue that might affect how we look at this kind of situation. If we are supposed to take the well-being of future generations into account, how much value do we put on them? It is easy to say that we do not want to leave them with temperatures so high that they disrupt a whole slew of natural processes and thus negatively affect them, but it is harder to say what exactly we would be willing to give up to prevent that. Is a person’s life 100 years in the future worth as much as one currently living? Is saving one life that many years down the road the same as saving a life right now, such as that of a child suffering from malnutrition or an adult in need of expensive pharmaceutical drugs? I am inclined to think that we generally value our current generation at a higher rate, but in that case the debate becomes more complicated. If we can increase our happiness and general well-being at this moment by paying a price further down the road, perhaps it is human nature to do so an benefit those we care about most. In fact, trying to solve the climate problem could lead to economic consequences that could potentially, depending on how we value future life, outweigh the benefits of the well-being of future generations. Whichever way the debate ends up swinging, however, is a matter that societies and humanity have to decide for themselves, and I completely agree that this cannot happen until more serious attention is paid to the issue. More constructive work needs to be done and honest discussions need to be had in order to get a better understanding of the kind of thing we are dealing with, even if we don’t necessarily come up with an all-encompassing “solution”.

  11. The rhetoric used in the dialogue that both scholars and laymen alike seems to indicate that the vast majority of humanity understands the urgency with which we must regard the problem of global climate change. We have forum after forum, protocol after protocol, and even in comparison to five years ago, there have been increased efforts on the part of individuals, NGOs, and governmental institutions to raise awareness of the climate change problem and to motivate those with organizational and institutional power to both incentivize and accelerate solutions. Having taken a freshman seminar in the Civil Engineering department specifically looking at issues such as climate change that can only be resolved with the intimate cooperation of the science, technology, and policy sectors of our society as well as having worked in the climate change and energy policy department of an American environmental NGO branch in Beijing, I disagree with Barnett that we lack sufficient research on the effects of climate change on the environment as well as on security issues.

    The crux of the argument for why we are not doing enough about climate change is not that we do not understand, or that we do not know enough about the issue. We, as individuals, a society, and as governments need more incentive and targeted policy. It has been proven time and time again that climate change will have implications for climate variability, the water cycle, solar radiation, ecosystems, land use change, atmospheric composition, carbon cycle; all these natural cyclical processes have been and will continue to be severely affected by anthropogenic factors, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, resulting in the warming of the Earth. We have examined stabilization wedges and projected various future climate models in order to assess how we are to most effectively mitigate climate change. Even with the most convenient and favorable stabilization wedge scenario, Science magazine predicts that we must have a strategic combination of an improved fuel economy, reduced reliance on cars, more efficient buildings, improved power plant efficiency, substituting natural gas of coal, carbon capture and sequestration, storage of carbon in hydrogen and synthetic fuels plants, nuclear fission, wind electricity, photovoltaic electricity, renewable hydrogen, biofuels, forest management and agricultural soils management.

    But the question of how to incentivize governments and citizens to buy into these sustainable and efficient solutions and recognize that these solutions may or may not come at the cost of further economic growth is a complicated one. How does the United States, a developed nation, point fingers at developing countries such as Brazil and China and tell them that they must hold off on their industrialization and modernization for the sake of the environment when this consideration was never on the table for the US during the Industrial Revolution? One thing is certain: the above options for mitigating cilmate change will require extensive government action on every nation’s part. The governments must be proactive in offering subsidies for alternative energy conversions and usage, but moreover, the private sector must also buy into the idea that their actions now, while they may not appear so, are deathly and destructive to the next generation. As much as doing small things on an individual level such as turning off the lights and the heat when we leave a room is great to boost a society’s morale on the issue, we need much more government action and we need it quickly. We need to put climate change above many security concerns and it is up to the international community to decide that climate change is imminent and needs to be #1 on the agenda.

  12. I agree with @sstrauss:disqus that nuclear energy provides a viable option, but it alone cannot replace our dependence on fossil fuels. Keep in mind that a significant portion of the world economy revolves around the extraction, refinement and trade of fossil fuels. The dependence on this source of energy extends beyond energy into politics, the economy, and the infrastructure of everyday lives. Additionally, corporations such as Shell, Exxon Mobil, etc spend a great deal of money distributing misinformation about the danger, or unknowns, of alternative energy sources. To make substantial change, the general population needs to be educated not only about the existence of climate change but about the alternative energy sources being proposed to stave it off. While it is certainly accurate to claim that more deaths occur due to air pollution, the fear cultivated by a nuclear reactor failure conjures up images of an America dotted with 1000s of Fukushimas and Chernobyls.

    Another harmful feature of the debate are “red herring” solutions like Ethanol, a development that was dependent on the support of an uneducated (and some would argue “bought”) congress. This type of issue illustrates how deeply interconnected issues of climate change, politics, and corporate influence are and may seem quite daunting to anyone hoping to have a profound effect. However, as the world becomes even more energy dependent and sources of oil become less dependable, we can hope that corporations without a direct connection to oil but with a clear need for energy solutions will drive development of alternative energy sources, educating the public and encouraging politicians to pass climate-friendly legislation.

  13. Jenny brings up an important point regarding the relationship between the United States and its still-developing allies, like China and India. Both of these nations have populations over three times as large as that of the United States, and face huge discrepancies in the degree of development of their rural and urban areas. Yet the United States was second only to China in its total energy consumption for the year 2012. The third-ranked nation, India, had a total consumption that was one-third of that of the United States. But unlike China and India, the United States does not need to develop any further. Its energy consumption cannot be justified by necessity.

    The United States therefore has a responsibility to devote a significant portion of its resources to creating new technology that will address the problems of climate change. This may take the form of fuel-efficient cars, energy-efficient agricultural technology, cheaper solar panels and wind turbines, or any other technology Jenny and other students have discussed. It will certainly require further restrictions to be placed on industries, and will also require the private sector to devote the coming years to investing in their own future. But once these clean energy technologies are created, they can then be shared and traded with our still-developing ally countries. If they have access to cleaner technology, but do not have to develop it themselves, these nations will be better equipped to implement their own energy-use restrictions. In the short-term, combating climate change may require a larger investment from developed countries than developing ones. But in the long-run, universal access to important energy-efficient technology is worth the extra cost.

  14. I think you raise an interesting point that I had not yet thought of, which is the issue of energy as a “conceptual” problem. I had always envisioned the world’s growing energy needs as a scientific problem in need of a scientific solution, but I do think your idea of looking further into a fundamental concept of energy in society is an interesting approach. My only question is do you see this as a feasible solution? It’s a lot to ask but what kind of changes in lifestyle do you have in mind? I think it would be impossible for anyone who has lived in our society to envision a world in which we are not dependent on energy.

    In light of this question of feasibility I would have to argue that there is no solution that will bring about a “fundamental change” in society. Rather, we have to rely on the resources available to us and work towards more efficient energy sources. Nuclear energy represents a much more viable solution than most people realize. Many of the issues with nuclear energy are political and related to public image. Nuclear energy is seen as risky, but in reality it confers no more risks than does any other energy source.

  15. I’m in firm agreement with your second point that a lot of our discussion of climate change fails to get at its most fundamental cause. Every manifestation of climate change can be boiled down to the consumption-obsessed society we live in today–driving cars, eating more beef, burning more fossil fuels for our ever-growing electricity addiction, cutting down forests for the land and for wood–and until we recognize the role those material desires play in causing global warming, any other measure fighting climate change is just a temporary stop-gap measure.

    What’s troubling about that, however, is the limited role policy can play to address this attitude before it is too late. Nearly a quarter of the nation (http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/01/global-warming-pause-climate-denial-public-opinion) vehemently denies the legitimacy of climate change research, which presents a significant informational challenge in getting society at large to recognize the problematic side effects of its consumption. And there’s not much more the government can do other than educate the public–any policy that restricts consumption on a significant scale will not be well received in a nation that reveres capitalism as the United States does.

  16. As Julia mentioned above, I agree that the developing vs. developed nations issue is at the core of the climate change problem. The developed countries definitely have a greater responsibility to take a more active role in addressing the climate change issue. The World Bank report repeats several times that it “is focused on developing countries while recognizing that developed countries are also vulnerable and at serious risk of major damages from climate change” (2). The developed countries tend to have more established infrastructure and the means to combat the negative effects of climate change, such as more frequent droughts, while developing countries lack such infrastructure. Therefore, “the distribution of impacts [of climate change] is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have at least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt proactively” (2). The developed countries definitely should be at the forefront of making technological advances that will help combat climate change, but they should also be taking a lead role in climate change mitigation for poor, developing countries as well.

  17. Climate change is an important effect of industrialization that can change the entire future of our planet. The emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming is increasing, but we may be able to taper off the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by paying attention to the actions we take globally. In order to get people (domestically and internationally) aware of the impending disaster that is global warming, policy makers need to take action and establish realistic goals involving the reduction of emissions. Cleaner technologies, including nuclear power and wind and solar energy, must be implemented to replace the burning of fossil fuels. Although many of these technologies are costly, largely inefficient, and potentially dangerous, further technological advances in sustainable energy can greatly increase efficiency while lowering danger and costs. All it takes is an initial investment in these methods by political figures with the power to encourage their utilization to the masses. It may be economically unfavorable on a short-term scale to implement cleaner technologies, which encourages the use of environmentally harmful power sources, but on a larger scale they can actually be more economical. For example, if solar panels were improved to make greater use of the sunlight they are exposed to (so that a larger percentage of light photons are transformed into usable energy) and then mass-produced, initial costs of the panels themselves would be reduced and this technology would be widely available, which, in turn, reduces the dependence of a population on other energy sources like coal. Policy makers need to make this preliminary push to make this happen, or earth-friendly power sources will remain too expensive, too inefficient, and too hazardous to be properly utilized.

  18. Julia, I agree with your emphasis on the cost and time that developed countries must put into environmental research. It made me think about the video that we watched showing all the nuclear bomb tests that have happened since 1945. Developed countries have pour so much money into unnecessary testing of nuclear bombs. Even Professor Glaser called these tests “excessive”. Understandably, though, we now have much more information about nuclear attacks and their effects. This makes them more comprehensible to us, and thus are seen as more of a threat. Meanwhile, not as much research has been done on environmental issues. Imagine if even half of the money that was spent on the nuclear tests had been put towards environmental research? Consequently, our understanding of environmental issues is more abstract and less defined than nuclear attack issues.

  19. With regards to the underlying sentiment expressed above, I completely agree. Present generations have no right to put the well being of future generations in jeopardy by contributing to negative climate change; rather, we may have an obligation to right the wrong. I believe the above statement, however, provided an oversimplified account of the present situation, which would point to obvious solutions – in this case, creating a market for emission caps or assigning blame to the countries for their relative contributions to the problem. The problem, however, is a more nuanced, complex collective action problem. On this point, I will address each of the proposed solutions above in turn.

    A commonly proposed solution to the problem of global climate change has been to create a cap on the amount of carbon emissions the world could produce and instill an international market in which those credits could be traded. The logic underlying this solution stems from the need for international cooperation and acceptance on the “acceptable” amount of pollution. The problems arise, however, from economic disparity between countries. If such a solution were to be implemented, countries like the United States, Russia, and China – all of whom have disproportionately contributed to global climate change – would attempt to buy up the credits of poorer countries. Some might argue poor countries would merely not accept this trade offer. However, these countries also do not have the luxury derived from economic security; they are more likely to think short-term and sell their credits for immediate benefits. This would result in a situation that enlarges the gap in quality of life between first and third world countries, as rich countries would be free to act as they wish while poor ones are forced to limit their emissions. Thus, this solution would increase economic disparity in the world. Some might argue that this is justified by the long term benefits of reducing carbon emissions. However, the counterargument is that we have no right to sacrifice the well being of impoverished people now to secure the well being of those in the future.

    Regarding the second proposed solution – that countries most responsible for the damages take responsibility – encounters problems as well. The first is an inter-temporal argument. The logic here is as follows. In generations past, people did not know that they were condemning the lives of future generations by emitting so much carbon into the atmosphere. Their intentions were innocent – and largely benevolent; the practices associated with high carbon emissions were also causes of rapid economic growth that increased the quality of life of many people. A second point here is that this problem is one that has roots in the history of countries like the United States. People who live now, who would be the ones who would suffer from having to take responsibility for the damages their nations had committed, did not start these trends. Rather, they were born in an era where such damaging practices were commonplace; they merely accepted them and continued. Thus, punishing people now for actions which they themselves did not start seems unjust and would face huge retaliation.

    In writing this, I am not saying that either of these proposed solutions is an improbability; rather, one or a combination may be the best options available at the moment. I am merely illuminating the complexity of the issues – from both a moral and logistical standpoint.

  20. While I agree with your refutation of Barnett’s belief that there is a lack of research regarding the possible security, social and economic ramifications of global warming, I think that, ultimately, Barnett misses the key point: the effective swaying and influencing of public opinion. His focus on improving and fine-tuning research really becomes a non-issue in practice, so long as existing research about the consequences of global warming fails to persuade the public to take action against climate change. The past decade or so have brought forth a wealth of research regarding the vivid and widespread dangers of global warming, including the world’s inevitable progress toward the deadly 4 degrees of warming, but so far, there does not seem to have been a major, successful ideological movement for environmentalism. I say “ideological” because I believe that this issue goes beyond scientific numbers, economic cost-and-benefit analyses, and research about the effects of climate change. In order for these reports to have any effect at all, there needs to be a moralistic, almost philosophical conversation and realization among the public that we have an obligation to future generations, and to members of a global society beyond ourselves, our family and our local community. Injecting moral philosophy and ideas of cosmopolitanism may seem lofty and tangential to the issue, but turning public opinion in favor of projects like the costly, long-term development of green technology may fundamentally require a less selfish and more global way of thinking–a change in thought rather than merely a change in economic calculations. It is precisely because of this necessary step that I am so pessimistic about the world’s progress in combating climate change.

  21. I would like to add the following: I couldn’t
    help but notice the huge environmental cost behind the carbon emission related
    to the U.S. military. Barnett notes that the U.S. military emits 210 million
    metric tons of CO2 (compared to United Kingdom’s 17 million metric tons of CO2
    emission) and that militaries are problems rather than solutions to global
    warming and its possibly associated problems and conflicts. I think this sheds
    light to some of the moral debates associated with the level of burdens and
    demands put on developed and developing countries. As a lot of people pointed
    out, it seems unreasonable to restrict the less developed countries’ economic
    development to reduce global warming in the future. Of course, in a long run, “how”
    the developing countries develop should be considered, encouraging them to
    utilize efficient technology that puts lesser burden on the environment.
    However, I feel that a more imminent prevention related public policy should
    look close into the military size and its consequences on both the environment
    and security. As Barnett points out, it is not proper to approach environmental
    problems as security problem and militarize to combat it, instead of looking at
    it as human insecurity that goes beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty.
    From last unit, we learned that the amount of nuclear arsenal present in the
    world is unreasonable and that reduction is critical to security for the world.
    I think the environment consideration adds another reason behind the importance
    of reduction of military size in both the United States and Russia; it will not
    only reduce the security risk associated with nuclear weapon usage, but also
    reduce environmental risks in the long run. This reduction, I believe will have
    multiplied effect on steps towards global warming prevention methods. By
    lowering military spending, both the U.S. and Russia should be able to afford
    more research towards efficient technology and also encourage developing
    nations to pursue the same environmental security goal by providing alternative
    methods of development (technology and resources) and other compensations to
    reduce the cost of giving up the easy, quick steps toward development. There
    are certainly many ways to combat global warming – which struck me as more
    critical than I had previously thought before reading the assigned readings –
    but I feel that disarmament is certainly a critical aspect that could bring
    about considerable reduction in CO2 emission in a short term.

  22. @sstrauss:disqus ‘s cost-benefit analysis regarding nuclear power vis-à-vis fossil fuels is impeccable in terms of direct costs (such as economic savings and avoided deaths). The scientific establishment has largely backed this view ever since last November, when four major U.S. scientists publicly stated their support of a shift towards nuclear power, identified as the only economically plausible solution to the climate change dilemma (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/to-those-influencing-environmental-policy-but-opposed-to-nuclear-power/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0). However, as four Japanese academics promptly noticed in a response to this statement (http://www.cneas.tohoku.ac.jp/labs/china/asuka/_src/2014/nuclear_power-climate_change_enver2.pdf), there are several issues with increasing the nuclear power usage that need to be kept in mind when discussing its usage.

    A couple of these issues they raise I believe are quite illuminating. Firstly, research indicates that if power generation costs were to be calculated by incorporating external costs, such as policy costs and accident costs, nuclear power would ultimately result considerably more costly than renewable energy sources as well as fossil fuels. Secondly, the number of third-generation nuclear reactors equipped with “passive safety systems,” which have allegedly higher safety standards, was only 20% or less among the 76 nuclear reactors in construction around the world as of last year. This is not to say that nuclear power does not constitute a valid option to mitigate climate change. Again, the science shows that it does. However, as the Japanese authors point out, it is paramount that different countries cooperate and agree to high safety standards if they are to turn to nuclear power.

  23. I believe that Nick brings up some good points. Indeed, we must look at different sides of the issue and consider possible tradeoffs that may need to be made. Such is the nature of policymaking.

    That said, I am not entirely convinced that the equity question is a dilemma as presented, for there is a lot of nuance to consider. For example, choosing whether to let people live in poverty today or invest in green energy to reduce future CO2 amounts (and thus mitigate the accompanying problems associated therewith, explained in detail in the World Bank report) may not be so black-and-white. In fact, as the report notes, the problems associated with an increasing number of extreme weather and climate events in the future will greatly harm efforts to combat poverty (xvii). How can an impoverished family be fed when food supplies are in doubt due to drought? How can an impoverished family living near waterways be supported when sea levels rise? Indeed, the costs—both to responding entities and to societies themselves—grow ever higher.

    Indeed, we do not know the future technology with which we may be able to combat climate change-related issues. However, as policymakers, it would be wholly naïve—and very irresponsible—to delay taking action now with the best available information and resources simply because we may want to wait things out. We know what’s going on. We have the information. We may not be aware of future generations’ preferences and ideals, but we’re living in the world as we understand it now. The policymaker’s duty is to evaluate the information relative to the best possible and available policy, not relative to the best imaginable world. And at the rate we’re going, that “best imaginable world” is slipping further and further from our grasp.

    At the end of the day, climate change may not be a paramount concern in terms of immediate danger. However, the costs of waiting are clear.

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