Frustrated by Congressional obstinacy, President Obama took executive action to address climate change on the steps of Old North on Tuesday. He spoke to a crowd in Dahlgren Quadrangle, outlining a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promising renewable energy development, regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and more efficient cars and appliances.
Though significant, these steps are both too modest and too late to curtail climate change. The unfortunate truth is that even under the most optimistic climate scenarios, the global mean temperature is expected to rise 2°C by the end of this century. Ecosystems will lose biodiversity, agricultural production will contract and sea levels will rise. It is critical that we do not conflate the climatological, ecological and geophysical magnitude of the president’s speech with the political frenzy that has surrounded it. Make no mistake, climate change is happening, and it will continue to happen.
This does not signify my capitulation to climate change, however, and I do not intend to demean the president’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Every potential molecule of carbon dioxide emissions is worth fighting against. However, we must come face to face with the reality: climate change is not some distant, vague notion that will strike at some point in the future —it is changing our world this very moment in countless ways. The questions at hand now are how much will the climate change and how we will adapt to these changes.
For that reason, I am pleased that one-third of President Obama’s climate action plan is focused on preparing for the impacts of climate change. For far too long, the climate change debate in the United States has centered on whether human-induced climate change exists in the first place, ignoring the impact it is having on our very own generation. Obama acknowledges these effects in his proposal by calling for flood-resistant infrastructure, systematically managing increased drought risk and preparing the health sector for climate-induced disease outbreaks.
It was also satisfying to hear Obama recognize that, internationally, the poorest countries are the least responsible for climate change, yet will likely suffer the most severe consequences. I am curious to see how America will “take the lead” to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not disproportionately affected by climate change, which is in large part due to the relatively luxurious American lifestyle. It’s worth bearing in mind that the wealthy will be able to buffer themselves from many impacts of climate change, such as higher food prices and increased prevalence of infectious diseases. This is especially poignant given that individuals in most developing countries emit less than a fifth of the carbon dioxide per capita of what we do in the United States. I would like to see our government and citizens take more responsibility for this discrepancy, which will only further bifurcate as the impacts of climate change become more widespread.
I worry that President Obama’s climate action plan misses the forest for the trees, so to speak. Climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues threatening our planet, but President Obama’s climate action plan ignores many of these issues. I am particularly concerned about the president’s endorsement of clean coal, natural gas and ethanol, all of which are marketed as clean and green energy sources. Mining “clean” coal still destroys landscapes, hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — natural gas deposits poisons water supplies and growing corn for ethanol means more mega-corporate agriculture, with all the petrochemicals, genetically modified organisms and energy consumption that accompany it. Ultimately, if President Obama is concerned with taking care of our “little blue marble” earth, he must defend it from all attacks on the environment.
All in all, we should be encouraged by President Obama’s plan, but we cannot release pressure – after all, climate change is relentless as long as we pursue the status quo. However, the pressure is also on us as individuals: We must do what we can to protect the environment from every threat it faces. The environment will not sustain us if we continue abusing it. President Obama took important steps in outlining his climate action plan, but there is much work to be done.
Gabriel Pincus (SFS ’14) is secretary of sustainability for the Georgetown University Student Association.