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Michael Spaeth: Before it's too late

By Michael Spaeth, Opinion Columnist
Published November 20, 2012

After a long presidential campaign that hardly mentioned climate change, it was refreshing to see President Barack Obama make a short, but important reference to the topic in his victory speech on election night.

“We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” the President declared to a roaring crowd of supporters in Chicago.

Last week, in his first press conference since June, Obama reiterated his commitment to fighting climate change: “I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.” However, he conceded that “for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices.”

Translation: Obama wants to fight climate change, but the current political landscape is holding him back from making a significant dent in the problem.

I understand the logic behind the President’s recent statements. Since there seems to be some common ground between both parties on issues such as the fiscal cliff and immigration reform, it makes sense to focus on those issues first. However, in the process, we can’t forget that climate change is the most important issue of this era — even more so than the economy. It won’t matter whether our economy is thriving, poverty is eliminated or any of the other major challenges facing our country are resolved if we live on an irreparably damaged planet. Several decades from now, it might be too late to curb the damage.

The World Bank recently released a new report with a dire warning: if we continue our current policies, “we’re on track for a 7.2°F warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity and life-threatening sea level rise.” According to Reuters, the report also mentioned some climate change effects happening now: “Arctic sea ice reached a record minimum in September, and extreme heat waves and drought in the last decade have hit places like the United States and Russia more often than would be expected from historical records.”

But climate change isn’t just about higher temperatures. In its summary of the report, Reuters wrote that “all nations will suffer the effects of a warmer world, but it is the world's poorest countries that will be hit hardest by food shortages.” Underscoring the urgency of the situation, in a recent conference call with reporters, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, “We will never end poverty if we don't tackle climate change. It is one of the single biggest challenges to social justice today.”

Climate change is harmful to our struggling economy. Harvard Law School Prof. Cass Sunstein recently wrote that even conservative icon Ronald Reagan supported reducing damage to the ozone layer because of the economic benefits of doing so: “Reagan’s economists found that the costs of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals were a lot lower than the costs of not doing so.” Sunstein wrote, “economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs.”

To his credit, Obama took some steps in the right direction during his first term: he “doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks” to take “a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere” and “doubled the production of clean energy, which promises to reduce the utilization of fossil fuels for power generation.” But we need to do more.

So what can college students do to help reduce the impact of climate change?

We can take small steps to reduce our individual carbon emissions, like carpooling when we drive home or walking or riding a bike around campus instead of driving. But even that won’t be enough to solve the problem.

The most important way we can help combat climate change is to keep pressuring our elected representatives, senators and president to develop legislation that will put a huge dent in the growing problem. The influence of our generation is growing: according to Edison Research’s early National Exit Poll, 19 percent of the people who voted in the 2012 election were ages 18 to 29, which was 1 percent higher than in 2008. Politicians are listening to us.

We need to let our lawmakers know that we are not going to let this issue go away — not when we’re the ones who will have to pay the price.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.


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