While there are a number of steps private citizens can take to reduce their carbon footprint, no matter how much we reduce, reuse and recycle it will not be enough to mitigate the effects of global warming. To seriously address climate change it will take a massive intervention by the federal government, which until now has shown a reckless disregard for the consequences of non-action.
"Absolutely the most important thing we can do right now is to be sure that we've elected an administration that is pro-environment," says Georgia Tech Philosophy Professor Bryan Norton, who studies environmental sustainability. "While individuals certainly can make a contribution, it's just limited because so much of the emissions are due to [government] policies."
Though it's human nature to focus on the issues that appear to most immediately affect you, such as the looming recession, it's foolhardy to think that climate change isn't taking place right now. A number of recent natural disasters have been attributed to climate change including Hurricane Katrina and the recent Georgia drought.
Disasters like these will only become more prevalent in the future and the unfortunate reality is there is little to be done about preventing them. What we can do is take actions now to blunt the worst of their effects such as widespread flooding and famine. But to take action we must have a president who understands what the future holds for this planet and has the political courage to institute some tough policies, which likely will be very unpopular in the beginning (especially with SUV drivers and big oil companies).
I'm talking about policies like a high energy tax on gasoline. Subsidies for the development of alternative energies, such as bio-fuels and solar energy, will not be enough to make their use widespread throughout the country unless there is a high tax on gasoline. We need to once and for all break our addiction to oil. Expect the withdrawal symptoms to be painful but infinitely preferable to the alternative.
While the presidential race has received an enormous amount of press coverage and enjoyed record primary voter turnout, the issue of climate change has hardly been touched on by major media outlets. According to the League of Conservation Voters, which has monitored all of the major television shows and presidential debates, of the 3,201 questions asked by television's top five political talk show hosts to candidates, only eight questions specifically mentioned global warming.
Since it seems the mainstream media has no plans to begin grilling the candidates on climate change, it's up to private citizens to make their concerns known by contacting the candidates' campaigns and questioning them directly at town hall events.
Of the three candidates, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have explained the clearest positions on climate change. Both Obama and Clinton have said they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. While giving lip service to the "sacred duty to be proper stewards of the resources upon which the quality of American life depends," Republican John McCain has yet to commit himself to any specific GHG reduction amounts. Still all three candidates have said they would support a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Unfortunately all of this talk of GHG emissions misses the boat. Global warming is not only caused by GHGs. It is also caused by the melting of the polar ice caps, which formerly reflected much of the sun's heat back into the atmosphere and away from the planet. Without the iceberg's reflective power, the sun's heat is now being absorbed by the ocean which has caused most of the planet's recent warming.
No matter how much we reduce our reliance on GHGs to fuel our energy needs (which we unequivocally must), global warming will continue because we have entered into a cycle of positive feedback, which became self-sustaining in the mid-1970s. In other words, there's no stopping it now folks.
What needs to take place as soon as possible is a radical change in the tone of discourse, from preventing global warming or reducing global warming to adaptation strategies for global warming. We will need to adapt in a number of ways. We will need to change the way we grow our crops, the way we travel, the way we behave as consumers and where we live.
According to a report by the Associated Press, 634 million people live in areas that are less than 33 feet above sea level and are threatened by flooding caused by the melting of the polar ice caps. Urban areas with more than 5 million people that are under threat by flooding include New York, Mumbai, Shanghai and Tokyo.
These people will need to be moved away from the flood zone, which will be problematic to say the least. Still it must be done and the people housed somewhere else. While America can probably handle the relocation of its own what about the many millions that live in poor Asian nations, where will they live? Or are they to pay the price for the avarice and neglect of western nations?
Despite the enormity of the task ahead, we have a moral responsibility to address it. As Al Gore wrote in his book "An Inconvenient Truth," "...by seizing the opportunity that is bound up in this crisis, we can unleash the creativity, innovation and inspiration that are just as much a part of our human birthright as our vulnerability to greed and pettiness."
Rachel Oswald is a reporter for The Covington News. She can be reached at roswald@covnews.