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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, June 22, 2024

Unified vision needed to affect climate change

The past year has not been easy on President Obama. I've often wondered why he wanted the job in the first place, and how he can carry himself with such poise despite being mired in so many promises that he cannot hope to fulfill during his presidency. During the Copenhagen climate talks, President Obama made another lofty promise, one meant to inspire other countries to rise up to the challenge of our changing global environment. With or without the approval of the Senate, Obama made a verbal agreement that the U.S. would drop carbon emissions 17 percent below what they were in 2005 by the end of this decade, something that will be difficult to do without imposing a radical gradient that is steep enough to change the American lifestyle. The climate talks came and went, and Obama was essentially left with the burden of leading us into a more environmentally friendly decade.

But instead, this only brought pessimism, leaving most environmentalists to ask a rather straightforward question: Is climate change a priority for world leaders?

The simple answer is no, definitely not. The reason is that world leaders are not unified on what needs to be done to combat global climate change, as evidenced in Copenhagen. Sure, we can blame this on respective rates of development and positioning of resources, but the situation demands actions, not excuses. All of our answers to climate change are instantly gratifying compromises that will leave us more problems in the future, the policy equivalent of sweeping a mess under the rug. Someone else will come and clean it up, someone always does, or at least that's the assumption.

When discussing Obama's commitment to emission reductions, United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer made it very clear that it doesn't matter how the U.S. curtails emissions, as long as changes are made. If the environment were truly a priority in this situation, there would be no compromise. De Boer's attitude leaves policy up for individual interpretation, a flexibility that will certainly end up bankrupting whatever hope environmentalists have that advocacy and protesting can save the planet. This laissez-faire attitude on the part of the U.N. leads to cap and trade policies, which give the guise of effectiveness, but in reality only serve to create ambiguity as to what our motivation is for curtailing climate change. Is it just a show to appease a disconcerted public, or are we serious?

Cap and trade is an environmental hoodwink because it assumes rigid, unrealistic constraints on a complex system. It assumes that carbon emissions behave with simple elegance, like algebra, not taking into account that we are part of an open system in which geographic location matters. Our biosphere has never been that simple, or linear, and we know better. If certain areas of the globe pollute more, they will still throw off the balance of the global environment, no matter how clean things are in another part of the world. Cap and trade promotes the compounding of pollution, ignorance of the Earth's inherent interconnectedness and, most importantly, provides answers that do not give us the results necessary to fix the problem.

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A recent study conducted at UW-Madison made an interesting distinction that isn't often brought up when discussing climate change. Researchers found that the benefits of clean air, mostly dealing with health, are worth more than the cost of implementing new policies. Intangible benefits are often not factored into climate policy decisions, probably because quantifying such effects is such an abstract endeavor. Although the study is largely optimistic and offers valuable insight, it still has problems. The study probably does not account for the full benefit of clean air, erring towards underestimation in hopes of more accurately reflecting the situation. We won't know how important clean air is until it's too late, just like we won't know how important it is to halt climate change until Manhattan is underwater.

In reality, a carbon tax is the only answer. It sets up a steep gradient that forces people to consider all of their actions and impact on the planet, regardless of their environmental stance. But the modern political climate is not conducive to such decisive action, action that we can no longer wait for. This is why we need to be unified to fight climate change, with everyone in agreement on what is the best action that will benefit the planet.

Though society is continually resisting it, a dramatic paradigm shift is going to be necessary to account for all of our new knowledge and desires. In an audio pastiche by the Books, they sample a scientist uttering the words, ""Something unknown is doing we don't know what. This is what our knowledge amounts to."" There is so much that we don't know, but this isn't the problem. The problem is we are not all facing the unknown together.

Anthony Cefali is a senior majoring in biology and English. We welcome all feedback. Please send responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com. 

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