Too Little, Too Late: Our Fading Environment

The so-called “eco-friendly” movement has gained traction across the world. Many new vehicles proudly sport “hybrid” badges, while plastic packages label themselves “environmentally conscious.” Television advertisements boast the benefits of Clean Coal (an oxymoron), and legislators announce oil pipelines and fracking agreements as victories for the people. Sipping coffee from our 10% recycled paper cups, we convince ourselves that we’ve done our part, all while remaining blind to the imminent ramifications of climate change.

The symptoms of this shift are not hidden, they are commonplace and universal. What prevents us from seeing this is a mass subconscious desire to ignore the causality of our activity and the net increase in global climate. Considering this, the vast majority of people fall into two categories: those who earnestly believe that climate change is a myth and fervently reject the scientific consensus, and those who are entirely apathetic or believes that inanities such as recycling will somehow stop melting of glaciers. That is not to say that this latter category is entirely ignorant of the existence of global warming. Rather, they seem to believe that the very minor technological and political progress being made today will be sufficient in the future.

In the former category, the mere mention of human responsibility for climate change is enough to send these individuals into paroxysms of anger. Prominent conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly have wholly dismissed climate change as ‘Junk Science’ while simultaneously championing greater usage of fossil fuels. For example, a 2012 episode of the O’Reilly Factor featured the meteorologist Joe Bastardi who stated that he was skeptical of climate warming because of “the heavy snowfall this winter”. Similarly, President Donald Trump stated that “It’s snowing and freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?” and that the “Concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive” in a set of typical Twitter aphorisms. These skeptics are primarily forgetting that global warming, like all climate studies, is a trend occurring over centuries. When confronted with objective data confirming rising sea-levels (such as satellite images of shrinking glaciers), they choose to retreat to the tried-and-true “we don’t know enough to draw conclusions” paradigm. Once individuals go into denial on the matter, there is no more opportunity for gainful discourse.

The latter category appears more conducive to combating climate change, but it is actually the most pernicious. Unlike the deniers, its members truly believe that the meager efforts being made to protect the environment will halt the progress of climate change. As a result, their efforts to that end are utterly misdirected. It seems that every week brings new technology that is purportedly better for the environment. A month or so ago, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors announced a new line of fully-electric vehicles that were championed as an important step forward in environmentally friendly transportations.

While Tesla vehicles do not consume fossil fuels themselves, they require electrical charging. According to the Energy Information Association, roughly seventy percent of American electrical production is from fossil fuels – and that’s in a developed nation. Developing nations rely on an even greater fraction of fossil fuel energy. Similarly, clean energy advocates support Natural Gas and ‘clean coal’ as future energy alternatives. In fact, T. Boone Pickens, an eminent advocate of alternative energy, referred to Natural Gas as “the ‘bridge’ fuel to the future” during a 2012 TED talk. While it is true that Natural Gas combustion has significantly reduced carbon dioxide emissions, it has also significantly increased atmospheric methane emission, which is actually more effective at trapping heat via the Greenhouse Effect than carbon dioxide. The other alternative, Clean coal, involves filtering and trapping the carbon dioxide produced by combustion via the complicated process of Carbon capture, but even that results in large amounts of volatile gas that has to be buried deep underground. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of modern conservation initiatives are only stopgap solutions. Hybrid vehicles, recycled materials, and “clean” fossil-fuel derivatives are barely having an effect on the inexorable warming of the climate.

The few politicians who acknowledge this looming threat stall and stutter when the time comes to react against it. None of the former Republican candidates listed climate change as a ‘position’ on their platforms – this alone highlights the popular ignorance characteristic of many Americans. Senator Bernie Sanders made note of the threat that global warming poses, but his plan for decreasing carbon emission was to simply increase taxes on fossil fuel companies. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specifically prioritized solar panels.

While the proposals of both Democratic candidates were steps in the right direction, they alone would not have been enough to divert the threat climate change poses. Any plan with the ability to produce meaningful results will be horrendously expensive. This leads to the question of who will bear the burden of funding. In late 2015, the UN Climate Change Conference produced a framework for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions known as the Paris Agreement. The agreement stipulates that a group of heavily industrialized nations voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas output to stall climate change at a mere 2 degrees Celsius over the historic level. While heralded by many governments and international figures as a step closer to true sustainability, the document is very much a paper tiger – there are no measures for enforcement or international oversight, and the involved countries cannot even reach a decision as to how much they individually must contribute.

Astoundingly, delegates from India and China (two of the largest polluters on the planet) raise colonialism as a reason to continue using coal. Their logic is that the US and most of Europe became developed while burning coal unchecked, and because of that, it is unfair to force developing nations such as theirs to curtail carbon emissions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “Climate change is […] not of our making. It is the result of global warming that came from prosperity and progress of an industrial age powered by fossil fuel.” The very fact that such an argument was made demonstrates the parochial nature of the considerations being made. According to a comprehensive study conducted by international scientists from the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics organization, the sea level will rise 5 meters by the 2090s. This climate model assumes that global carbon emissions are maintained at their current levels. Although 5 meters seems inconsequential, it will inundate some of India and China’s largest cities- Mumbai, Chennai, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. The flooding of these 5 cities alone accounts for roughly 47 million displaced people, not even considering the populations of affected outlying areas. Each country’s representatives only consider the impacts of such climate agreements through the lens of short-term economic effects. Developing a nation is a worthy and necessary task, but choosing to follow the demonstrably destructive path of fossil-fuel industrialization is the epitome of environmental nearsightedness. No one is willing to consider the fact that the rising waters and hurricanes will not be egalitarian in their actions.

As it stands, the outlook is grim. Humanity has collectively passed the point of no return in its emissions and wanton pollution of the environment. With this in mind, the time has come to shift from half-hearted preventive measures to a full-scale preparation for a warmer planet. The exact nature of human dependency on fossil fuels is yet unknown: petroleum and natural gas derivatives are used to create a lot of plastics and other polymers in addition to being energy sources. By identifying the exact usages of these finite substances, we can prioritize the developments of alternatives by scientific viability. Biofuels, such as corn and grain-derived ethanol could serve as replacements for petroleum with minimal modifications to extant vehicle designs. Bioplastics derived from the waste produced by trash-eating microorganisms could be used as a replacement for traditional petroleum-based plastics. Additional research into geothermal harvesting and wave energy capture could provide bottomless sources of electricity without any of the hazards of nuclear containment or land requirements of solar and wind platforms. The collective human scientific establishment has hypothesized a large variety of such solutions, and has gradually started testing them. For example, companies such as Oceanlinx, Pelamus, and Islay LIMPET have created prototype wave-energy devices that are capable of capturing gigawatts of energy. However, in order to transition from prototypes to energy generation staples, government subsidies and resources are absolutely necessary. These small, often very new companies simply cannot compete with the Fossil Fuels lobby. Organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute have deep coffers and armies of lobbyists to combat government incentives for alternative energy, and actively disseminate misinformation about the utilization of oil and natural gas.

Aside from replacing fossil fuels as the primary source of energy and electricity, a host of measures must be taken against the changing environment. As the ocean temperatures rise, greater quantities of dissolved carbon dioxide will make the waters more acidic, killing off a large amount of aquatic life. In addition, the increasingly volatile weather will result in more erosion, polluting the dwindling fresh water supply. Acidic rain will defoliate and destroy tropical countries' vegetation while rising waters will reclaim much of the world’s fertile land. The rising waters will create an even greater refugee crisis than the war in Syria, which will, in turn, pose a conventional threat as countries fight for the last arable land. There will be another mass extinction of flora and fauna: this is not the time to worry about conserving endangered pandas and the like but to focus on conserving the human race. These organisms should be genetically cataloged in a “Noah’s Ark” for the postdiluvian world. Large-scale desalination plants must be constructed to provide potable water, coupled with hydroponics and genetically modified plants designed to survive in harsher conditions. New food sources must be found and exploited, whether it is lab-grown meat or protein-rich insects. These measures are extreme and will require a tremendous amount of expenditure in terms of money and resources. However, can we really try to bargain with something as inexorable as climate change?

This money will have to come from somewhere: politicians will have to be convinced, which involves dealing with the climate-change naysayers. The bitter truth is that the current generation in power will not live to see the consequences of their exploitation of the planet. In fact, the millennials will probably be the first generation to encounter and suffer from the widespread symptoms of climate change. With this in a mind, the millennial generation must become wholly active. I don’t mean the idealistic and ultimately misguided efforts of conservation groups such as Greenpeace. Already, the youth of the world are increasingly aware of the changing climate – this should be capitalized upon. The current generation of activists needs to transition from the ineffective measures of the past to the proactive measures of the future. If the various extant conservation movements are united in effort and in scope, they can serve as platforms for the creation and implementation of ideas critical for adapting to the changing climate. We must actively participate in government to exert pressure on the powers that be. We must flock to the STEM fields and raise a new wave of scientists and engineers capable of tackling the adversities and obstacles we will certainly encounter. The new technologies, processes, and political reforms that are urgently necessary will require a vast amount of resources and collective effort. Ultimately, this is about humanity collectively accepting responsibility for centuries of irresponsible development, and preparing to face the music.



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