Volume 18 • Issue 1
Southwestern @ Georgetown
Emily teaches courses in economics and in environmental studies
From the Lecturn

If you are like me, you missed the 2001 release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This report by an international group of experts was a review of the research on climate change, and it marked the emerging consensus among climate specialists: Earth is warming, and human behavior is the most significant cause. Subsequent research has only strengthened these conclusions. We can no longer plead uncertainty about the phenomenon.

In addition, it is increasingly difficult to plead simple ignorance. The news accounts have become so numerous and prominent, they are hard to avoid. Just in the past few months The Wall Street Journal reported on the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, and the cover of Time warned, “Be Worried. Be VERY Worried.” Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” laid out the science, and a story on National Public Radio attributed the melting of the Siberian tundra to human activities. The news is replete with reports on the impacts that we are already experiencing, including devastating droughts and heat waves, an increase in Category 4 and 5 storms, melting glaciers and a much higher rate of extinction. Looking ahead, the range of serious projections includes the dire possibility of a rise in the ocean level that would bring the Gulf of Mexico well into central Texas.

A critical change has emerged in our understanding of climate change. This is that our failure to address the problem has allowed it to worsen, and unexpectedly, to accelerate. Climate experts on a PBS “NOVA” show estimated that we have but a decade to act decisively to reverse our CO2 levels, the major culprit behind climate change. Should we fail, it is haunting to imagine that as future generations deal with the devastations of climate change, they will look back at us with dismay and wonder, “How could they have allowed this atrocity to unfold?”

Our action is sorely needed on two levels. First, we need to make changes in our private lives such as burning less fuel in travel, shopping less and eating less meat, installing compact florescent lights, drying clothes on a line and using more efficient home appliances. I often talk with people about measures such as these, and occasionally someone candidly explains why he or she is not making this type of change, saying “Anything I can do won’t matter. I’m not sacrificing until everybody else does.” While I wonder if our progeny will be soothed by this attitude, I can follow the thinking, which brings us to the second arena in which we need to take action: the public sphere. We need a critical mass of responsible citizens driving the passage of legislation ensuring that all Americans be better caretakers of the planet. We also need a national energy policy that aggressively promotes renewable energy sources and conservation.

In dark moments I fear that we will not clean up our act in time to avert worldwide calamity. In An All-Consuming Century, historian Gary Cross demonstrates that in this country consumerism has won over all contenders, including democracy. If our comforts, conveniences and material pleasures remain our high priority, then future generations will indeed wonder of us: What were they thinking?

There is no doubt, however, that the only ethical course is to spare them the global catastrophe. It is urgent that we contact our elected officials expressing our deep concern about climate change. That seems the very least any of us should do.

Send questions or comments regarding this article to northrop@southwestern.edu.