Every time a debate about climate change arises around me, I grind my teeth and waver. Should I add my opinion? Will others hear my perspective and denounce me as ignorant? Sometimes they do, but I usually speak my mind anyway. I tell them about an alternative perspective that is constantly weighing on my mind: are humans even obligated to try to mitigate climate change?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in climate change. I’m a vociferous advocate of climate change mitigation, and plan on dedicating my life to arguing for the protection of the environment as an environmental lawyer. But I think it’s provincial and myopic to be absolutely sure of your stance on any one issue. I know enough to know that I don’t know anything. As such, I often find myself vacillating between opposing positions on any given issue. This often makes me feel indecisive and dumb, because I don’t have actual stances on many important disputes.
In my senior year of high school, I took an environmental science class with a teacher named Mr. Watson. Mr. Watson was a young, passionate environmentalist — a favorite among students — but the general consensus was that he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Personally, I thought he was smarter than my peers gave him credit for. At least, he definitely knew his environmental science. One day I decided to engage him in a debate about some thoughts that had recently been simmering in my mind.
I challenged him to tell me why humans are obligated to fix climate change. I had recently read about the Great Oxidation Event of circa 2 billion years ago, in which organisms called cyanobacteria began to produce oxygen via photosynthesis. This event created an atmosphere dominated by oxygen, which in turn induced an ice age and mass die-off of obligate anaerobic organisms (organisms with a low oxygen tolerance). Shortly after learning about the GOE, I learned about Gaia Theory, which posits that the Earth is a single self-regulating system. The theory hypothesizes that every living and non-living component on the planet evolved in tandem with one another and work together to maintain habitability. In other words, there is a master plan at work, controlled by nothing and everything at once.
My thought was, if cyanobacteria could cause massive climate change, why shouldn’t humans be able to do the same? After all, humans are just as “natural” as bacteria, seeing as we’re both just different organisms on the same planet. Albeit, we’re a bit more advanced than bacteria, but level of advancement shouldn’t make a difference in our respective obligations to reverse our effects on the climate. That level of advancement means we can understand our impact on the climate more than cyanobacteria could, but still, why should increased understanding increase our obligation to fix what we’ve done? In accordance with Gaia Theory, if we’re all part of one big self-regulating system, maybe human-caused climate change is part of the self-regulation. Maybe climate change is supposed to happen, and by trying to stop it, we’re actually disrupting that system of self-regulation.
Mr. Watson responded by saying that humans are not “natural,” and as such must fix all “unnatural” effects they’ve had on the environment. However, sociologist Rudi Volti in his book Society and Technological Change posits, “it is pointless to indict technology as somehow ‘unnatural’…to quarrel with technology is to quarrel with the nature of man.” If, as Volti puts forward, human technology is as natural as his upright gait or speech, then any resultant of our technology, to wit, climate change, must also be considered natural.
Climate change has developed as an unintended consequence of our technological systems. Even if we say as a society that we should mitigate climate change because it poses a danger to ourselves, other creatures and the environment (which we should do), we still face other potential unintended consequences of our mitigation efforts. We can never truly know what effect our actions will have. To that, a friend with whom I was discussing the issue said that we can’t get caught up in the “what if’s.” If we get mired in those endless possibilities, we’ll become paralyzed by indecision and nothing will actually get accomplished.
At Cornell, I’ve found there to be a very single-minded dialogue about most issues. In the climate change debate here, the opinion is of a single stripe: everyone believes in it, and believes we should fix it. There’s no room for alternative perspectives, and if someone presents one, they are charged with oblivion and idiocy. But to foster a fertile environment for ideas and debate, alternative perspectives like this one are not just helpful, but needed. In a relatively isolated, homogeneously minded place like Cornell, students need challenges to their mindsets to prepare them for the world, where opinion will be much more diverse.
Christian Baran is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at [email protected]