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Climate Change and Its Discontents: An Introduction

Climate Change and Its Discontents: An Introduction

Climate change is an odd sort of crisis—in some ways, it is not really a crisis at all. Unlike a war or a critical resource shortage, the processes behind climate change began before many of us were born, and will continue to play-out long after many of us are gone. It is not a crisis between governments, nation-states or even blocs of countries. It is a collective action problem in which every human being will feel the impacts, although not evenly nor fairly, and for which every human being will need to bear responsibility. Climate change is mind-boggling: in scale, impacts, consequences, and possible solutions. Psychologists have suggested that the nature of climate change is itself a crisis: humans simply cannot think about it in the way we need to, if we are to approach it constructively.

The “social cost of carbon” (SCC) is a means of breaking down the costs of climate change into clear economic terms, and therefore render climate change an intelligible phenomenon. The SCC is currently the mechanism used to determine how much future damages (to business, governments, and taxpayers) caused by climate change are worth today. Government agencies, like the EPA, use the SCC to determine when carbon-mitigating action is worth the investment by quantifying the costs associated with inaction, and the benefits of CO2 reduction. A recent analysis found that Obama-era climate regulations would have net benefits of $300 billion per year by 2030. By contrast, it is estimated that on our current trajectory, coming generations will face $535 trillion in costs associated with climate change. Our present day responsibility for those costs is calculated using a discount rate, the percentage of which can vary greatly. The higher the discount rate, the lower we will value the social cost of carbon in the present. The current SCC in the U.S. is about $37 per ton , but some argue it should be much higher.

The window of time we have to start tackling climate change is shrinking rapidly. On June 28, Christiana Figueres, overseer of the Paris Agreement, and her colleagues announced that the world has a very short timetable with which to deal with climate change: unless the rate of greenhouse gas emissions begins to decrease by 2020, the consequences of climate change will no longer be safely endurable. The decline of coal use in the U.S. and Canada has contributed to a flattening of emissions since 2014. However, there are many moving parts to achieving the necessary downward trend, such as globally shifting away from coal energy, restricting refrigerants, or increasing sales of electric cars to 15% of global car sales. This estimate hinges upon relatively simple math: if we are to hold global temperatures to between a 2.7 and 3.6˚F rise, then we can add no more than 600 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Currently, we emit 41 billion tons per year, meaning that we have 15 years before we bust through our “carbon budget.”

The negative effects of climate change are substantial. It is estimated that the sea level rise will impact 670 coastal communities by the end of this century, with chronic flooding from Maine to Texas and parts of the West Coast. Climate change also poses a national security risk as it is a “threat multiplier”: it exacerbates conflicts in drought and disaster-stricken areas of the world, as it did in Syria, which can increase terrorism. It will also displace an incredible number of people affected by these disasters who, with the opportunity, will migrate. Illustrative of Earth’s changing ecology is the fact that the Earth is in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of plants and animal species. The worst of those previous mass extinctions is the Permian Extinction, also known somewhat ostentatiously as the “Great Dying.” It was a direct result of the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels driven by volcanic eruptions. We are currently burning through fossil fuels ten times faster than during the Permian.

Unfortunately, despite the unanimity of climate scientists, there is not uniform agreement in our society on the matter of climate change. Among conservative American politicians, a favorite tactic seems to be fostering and advocating for skepticism by saying that according to “only” 97% of peer reviewed climate science papers, not only is the climate changing but humans are directly responsible. While more than 60% of Americans now believe the climate is changing, the question of whether or not humans are responsible remains the primary point of controversy. However, when the data is examined, the results could not be clearer—human contributions account for earth’s change in temperature above all else. Even if we were still skeptical, wouldn’t we rather take the safe road and act rather than risk the consequences?  

But there is still good news; namely, while it might be the case that dissenting voices on climate change often drown out more pragmatic views, it is possible for that to change. More Republican politicians are supporting clean energy and the number of people who believe humans are the cause of climate change is at an all time high. People are also creatures capable of changing our minds, a feature of our thinking which ought to provide a great deal of hope. But the work of changing minds is not easy and must be pursued diligently.

Taking up the mantle of climate activism is not an easy proposition—especially when economic and social pressures continue to affect our everyday choices—but it is a necessary and sensible choice. In an attempt to remedy the misconceptions and overwhelming feeling of apathy that can permeate responses to climate change, authors Michaela Koke and Alex Kraemer will examine four different regions of the United States where the consequences of climate change are beginning to unfold. To start, Part II of this series will examine the possible consequences of climate change in the American South, especially in regards to worsening hurricane seasons and the reality of ongoing inundation faced by many coastal communities there.


The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

About the authors: Michaela Koke is currently studying at Vermont Law School. Alex Kraemer is a graduate of Cambridge University's history program.

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