Why no one is stopping climate change

Posted on August 18, 2010


In recent years the debate about climate change, sometimes called global warming, has become politicized. Emotions run high on both sides, which, as is common in public discourse, leads more to a clash of ideologies and values rather than a calm and cogent discussion of the various sides of the issue at hand.

Most people are familiar with the basic premise of climate change. For the last two to three centuries people have used more and more fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas, for the most part) for heat, transportation, electricity and industry. When these fuels are burned, they release gasses and particles into the air. Some of them, like the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain, carbon monoxide, and the particulates of smog, are often filtered out now because of governmental regulation. Most of the emission is made up of carbon dioxide, which seemed relatively safe. It is clear, odorless, and safe in even relatively high concentrations. It also cannot be filtered out, and is an unavoidable product of combustion. The problem is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is one of the gasses, like water vapor or methane, which traps heat in the atmosphere, like windshield glass traps heat on a sunny day.

This far has been firmly established.

The controversy comes with the amount emitted, the scale of the effects, what level of change is too much to risk, and who should pay the price to prevent catastrophe. There are a few people who believe it to be sinful for humans to have any major impact on their environment. This is extremely impractical. Humans have always caused tremendous change, and there are so very many people that many people would have to starve and live in penury in order to realize the goal of zero carbon emissions. Others argue that short-term economic growth always trumps any effort to protect the environment, and that the slightest rise in fuel prices or tightening of regulation takes away profits. This view is also shortsighted, and sometimes greedy. Some of the people who advocate it are only interested in profit for themselves, and don’t mind watching the rest of the world burn. Others are more truly concerned with the poor, but don’t see that extreme climate change, with droughts and floods, massive storms and rising sea levels, would put much more pressure on them than preventative measures.

Even when groups agree that something must be done, they all want someone else to do it. Rich world countries want poorer countries with high populations and thus high total emissions to cut theirs. The poor countries say that rich people emit more per person, and that anyway, rich countries are rich because they’ve had 200 years of industrial emissions that have gotten us into this problem in the first place, and they want the rich countries to pay them a lot of money in recompense. Within the US, the Senate has blocked legislation because every state has coal mines, or oil burning power plants, or rural citizens that have to drive everywhere and would be hard hit by fuel price rises, and they want other people to have to make sacrifices.

In a matter such as this, no one will be motivated by altruism or responsibility. Only when the effects become clear and start to hurt people will companies, governments, and individual be willing to make the changes necessary. If we are all very lucky, we will be able to adapt to the changing environment without too much suffering or loss of life.

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