December 2, 2015

KOWALEWSKI | Taking the Lead on Climate Change

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According to the World Meteorological Association, it is very likely that 2015 will be the warmest year in recorded human history. At the same time, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have now reached 400 parts per million, the highest level they have been in millions of years. And they continue to rise rapidly. Despite a clear scientific consensus on the existence of anthropogenic climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued at an accelerating rate.

These facts give an undeniable urgency to this week’s major climate change conference in Paris, known as COP21. Representatives from 195 countries have come together in hopes of reaching an agreement that might prevent our rapidly approaching climate disaster. With each moment of inaction, the planet moves closer to a warmer, inhospitable future. For many countries, this future poses a terrifying threat, and they have already caught a glimpse.  In sub-Saharan Africa, increasingly sporadic rainfall and continued desertification imperil the food supply; in Polynesia, rising sea levels raise fears that entire nations will someday sink beneath the waves.

But it is a cruel irony that many of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are also the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, any effort to seriously combat climate change must be led by the largest economic and political powers of the world. The United States, China, Europe and other leading nations have an obligation to act — it is reprehensible to continue creating the conditions of this impending environmental catastrophe. It is a burden that is unfairly placed upon the poor, the young and those who are not yet born. Even if this moral argument is not viewed as compelling, self-interest alone should motivate all sides to reach an agreement.

It is curious that this debate is often framed as a balance between environmental protection and economic growth. Rather, they go hand-in-hand; combating climate change is a necessary step to protect the health of the future economy. If the world continues on our current path, we will be on track for more than four degrees Celsius of warming, triggering what the World Bank has deemed “cataclysmic changes.” On a planet besieged by widespread crop failures and coastal inundation, our current global economy and supply chains may seem a quaint relic of the past.

Nonetheless, this is not merely a case of staving off a brewing economic calamity. There is significant reason to believe that the transition to a low-carbon society will stimulate growth and innovation. The rise of green industries may reorganize labor markets across the world, revitalizing post-industrial nations and providing new avenues for investment in the developing world. To be certain, the task of creating a sustainable world is daunting — but so was the Industrial Revolution.

We do not know the exact details of what type of climate deal might come out of COP21.  It will depend on a careful overlay of national interests and complicated priorities. However, in this milieu, President Obama has emerged as a strong leader for a comprehensive global agreement. Yet, at the same time that he fights to secure commitments and concessions, his ability to negotiate is stymied by a chorus of opposition from back home.

Despite the fact that large majorities believe we should reduce emissions, the Republican Party continues to stand vehemently against any form of action. Many Republican elected officials deny the existence of climate change altogether. This includes Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a firm believer that climate change is a hoax, and sadly, the current chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. The Republican Party’s denial of science has cast a shadow over COP21. It would not be an understatement to say that their continued criticism represents an outright sabotage of President Obama’s efforts to secure an agreement.

The right has a strong tendency to attack Obama for supposedly failing to demonstrate foreign policy leadership. But they would choose to shirk American responsibility on climate change. In the middle of an urgent international crisis, they would prefer that the United States stand by and do nothing. Jeb Bush has attacked Obama for supposedly having a foreign policy of “American passivity.” Yet, when asked if he would’ve attended COP21, Bush said he was uncertain, leaving open the possibility of allowing the United States to be unrepresented in an urgent meeting of 150 world leaders. Who, really, is the passive one?

Climate change is an emergency. This is not a matter where we can take a “wait-and-see” approach. Every moment of unabated emissions brings us closer to dangerous tipping points, and soon, it will be too late. The United States cannot stand by and allow this to happen. President Obama correctly recognizes this — but his power is not unilateral. At this crucial time, we must stand with him. Americans have always risen to meet our greatest challenges, and I am confident that we still can. It is merely a question of whether we will.

If we choose not to, we will face the judgment of history. I do not think it will be kind.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.