The Politics of Climate Change

Courtesy of Parthajit Datta/AFP/Getty Images.

Global warming is still a hot topic in the news, though that term—global warming—recalls a time when the fever pitch regarding such a phenomenon and ominous prospect was too easily triggered to hysteria. When, for instance, religious fundamentalists raised and shook their fists as a cry for attention, and co-opted the science of the time to support the prophecies of their own holy literature. And when the masses, hyped up on the reduced science broadcasted on late-night news shows and the science mutated by word-of-mouth, talked only of melting icecaps and polar bears floating alone on rafts of broken ice, and of Manhattan and all the seaboard states disappearing beneath the tides. At least, these are the images and memories that come to mind for me, and, if I’m not being too bold by speaking on its behalf, my generation. Because for us it was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that put the topic on the map, and even though an amazing surge of government and public response—increased funding and prominence of the issue in campaigns, as well as general discourse and awareness—can be charted in the years since, it’s all gone somewhat over my head. And while the issue at hand is as contentious as ever despite the sharpening clarity of scientific evidence, its stake in the country’s future has changed, changed from a warning to a fact and now, in a report released on Monday by the Pentagon, a threat to national security.

“Global warming” isn’t even the latest term; it’s climate change. Global warming, according to NASA historian Erik Conway, entered and took off in the vocabulary back in 1988, when a scientist used it in a testimony before Congress and the press essentially marquee’d it. For a while it was the national buzzterm and sustained itself on the popular myths—in other words, the gross oversimplifications—that circulated among normal folk, the nonspecialists, who scanned through headlines over breakfast. But now that things have cooled down (figuratively), there’s a lot more levelheadedness when it comes to discussing the matter. People fixate less on what they think they know about it and more on what it is. So global warming, a predictable trend, is now erroneous. Climate change, dangerously uncertain, is real.

And yet while it seems that no one really denies that climate change is real, the consensus reaches a crossroads when it comes to pointing fingers at its cause. Who’s to blame? Or rather, what? And why does it matter? This conversation exists within a multitude of contexts, transposing itself in infinite ways—from coffeeshop chitchat to family dinner banter, from research labs to farmers, from Central Valley to Nepal. Everyone has an opinion, more than their two cents. And while the subject at hand is scientific in nature (which means that the verdict, the truth, must have empirical backup), the space where the conversation is most important is also a total free-for-all. Yes—I mean government. When asked if he would ever watch An Inconvenient Truth, former President George W. Bush said, “I doubt it.” He, along with most other Republicans, firmly manned their indifference to climate change, shrugging their shoulders at the 97% of informed researchers who said that humans should take the blame for climate change. In politics, a lot of the time, this kind of data means next to nothing; power exists in a different kind of number: the how-big-is-your-clan number, which affects legislation.

But as the climate has proved, change is possible, even for some politicians, the hardwired loyalists who yea or nea without hearing what the other side has to say first. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for example, who presented the Pentagon report, went out of his way back in 1997 to prevent the United States from involving itself in the Kyoto Protocol. Now he’s sounding a call to arms to treat climate change as a prime player not only in abnormal natural affairs but also with regards to a lot of recent political unrest. According to Marcus D. King, who studies the intersection between climate change and international affairs, “‘Climate change and water shortages may have triggered the drought that caused farmers to relocate to Syrian cities and triggered situations where youth were more susceptible to extremist groups.’”

I don’t think that the big picture comes intuitively to us when we consider a problem like climate change, something whose ramifications differ on several, often overlapping, fronts. Even in Los Angeles, only hours away from the sites of devastating drought in the middle of the state (where many residents currently don’t have running water), there’s no local pressure for someone like me, a UCLA student, to do something about it. Sure, last year my dorm was encouraged to take shorter showers, to turn off the lights. But it’s not like I went to brush my teeth one night only to get no response from the faucet. Writing about this reminds me of something a friend of mine said when the California water shortage made the front page several days in a row, when even Obama came over to see what was going on. “I find it all a little stressful,” I said. “Like, when’s it going to hit us, here in Westwood?”

“It’s not worth stressing out about,” said my friend. “We’re going to be fine.”

I don’t totally agree with him, but I’ve lived by those words—it doesn’t cross my mind how much water I’m wasting when I daydream in the shower. But to appreciate my own privilege, and to acknowledge the crisis we’re in, I’ll cut my shower time in half for at least the rest of the month. As negligible as this small move is in the grand scheme of things, it’s something I can do, a sacrifice that I’m happy to make. There are other strings in the environmental knot we’re trying to untangle now, strings that are working against us—knots-in-progress, deeper problems foreshadowed in the Pentagon report. To be honest, I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know how the pieces fit together. But I feel that my eyes have been opened; now I’m aware. And that’s a step in the right direction.

To read the article that inspired this post, click here.

Post submitted by James

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