The Fight Against Climate Change

Dheera Vuppala, 15 years old, is currently a sophomore at Nashua senior high school South, New Hampshire, USA. Growing up in a family where education was a priority and where it changed the lives of many, she aspires to teach the value of it to at-risk students. By taking steps in this direction, she hopes that it will cause education for all in impoverished countries across the world such as India, Nigeria, and the Middle East. Dheera hopes to convey the message that education is more than the core subjects, and rather that it should allow you to stand up for your values. She is also passionate about politics and economics.

ESSAY TOPIC: Sustainable Development Goal #13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Propose specific measures for your country (or region or city) to reach the goal’s objectives in the next 15 years.

Dinosaurs, once thought to be probably the most capable and intelligent animals to ever walk the face for the Earth, were wiped out due to geological events. Fast forward 60 million years and humans are the most advanced race, distinctly characterized by their speech ability. It seems inevitable that humans will, likewise, suffer a mass extinction, but humans being held responsible for their downfall was unthinkable, that is until now. The human race is ignoring all warning signs of the impending threat to civilization, climate change, through their deplorable actions. In 2015, it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas Day in Boston. This abnormal temperature concerns the majority of the global population. To add fuel to the flame, scientists have predicted that at the current rate, 100 million and counting could be dead by 2030 all as a result of climate change. 2030 is only 14 years away. You and I may very well be alive so it’s not a question of whether or not to combat climate change but rather what steps the United States, a leading force in the fight against climate change, can take to tackle this rapidly rising risk.

The threat of climate change is growing more serious than ever because of unusually high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This prevents heat from being reflected back into space, allowing for warmer temperatures here on Earth. This phenomenon is better known as the greenhouse effect. As a nation, climate change must be tackled, without altering the quality of life. To accomplish this goal, there are three tasks citizens and policymakers around the country must confront. First, the federal, state, and local governments in collaboration with each other must block industries from emitting huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Second, it is vital that consumers/households lessen the amount of electricity they use. Last but not least, public and private companies as well as the government must research cost-effective renewable energy sources.

The very first, and most urgent task the United States must accomplish is to reduce carbon emissions coming from industries. Industries account for 21 percent of total carbon emissions in the U.S. To reduce industry emissions there are several policies, the U.S. can administer. These include the cap and trade system, an effective carbon tax, and promoting efficient technology. With the cap and trade system, the government puts a limit on the amount of emissions allowed, “the cap,” and divides that amount among each industry/company. The cap and trade system allows each industry to have an entity that describes how much carbon they can emit. If a certain industry emits less than its allocated amount, then it can sell its allowance to another company. This creates a market for carbon emission allowances. Having a cap and trade system works well because if a company is able to reduce their emissions to less than what they are allotted, they’ve the choice of selling their allowance in return for money or any other form of payment, “trade.” Also certain industries that find it hard to lower emissions can buy allowances to give them more flexibility. Whatever happens, only a certain amount of carbon could be emitted. This limit could be lowered each year. The cap and trade system is the most flexible and economical way to lower emissions. It has worked previously to decrease the amount of acidic rain and it can be used again to fight climate change. Also, a common yet effective method involves implementing the carbon tax. The carbon tax is basically a tax placed on the amount of carbon emitted by each company. It’s simple economics—as the company emits more, the tax goes up and as the tax goes up companies may have an incentive to lower the amount of carbon they emit. The revenue from the carbon tax can be used to lower other taxes on companies so that it doesn’t burden the company having a numerous amount of taxes that can have a negative economic impact. Last but not least industries can lower emissions by making use of more efficient technologies. Many industries, in order to save costs, are still using older machines that emanate more carbon than the newer technologies for the same output. To encourage companies to switch to newer technologies the government should provide subsidies for new machinery. This would solve the problem of costs for companies, cancelling out the negative impact of the expensive machinery.

Even with each one of these policies large amounts of carbon will still be emitted, so lawmakers have a responsibility to implement policies to counteract the huge amounts of carbon emissions. Policies could be passed in Congress that require each industry to plant a certain amount of plants in proportion to the amount of carbon they emit. The issue lies in the faucet is larger than the drain—the faucet being carbon and the drain being plants. If there are more plants in the surrounding environment then the carbon are absorbed by the plants.

In the fight against climate change everybody has a part, including consumers and households. On a daily basis consumers and households use electricity for lights, technological gadgets, cooking, etc. All this electricity is produced through power plants with the most common one often being coal. Coal power plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide emissions and one typical coal plant releases approximately 3.5 million tons of CO2. By reducing the amount of electricity residential homes use, less electricity are generated leading to lower carbon emissions. There are many steps the government can take to persuade consumers to lower the amount of electricity they use. Households can install more efficient appliances such as the new refrigerators that don’t use as much electricity to run, and new windows that keep the cold air out. In this way the heater doesn’t have to run as much resulting in a lower amount of electricity being used. The U.S. federal government can provide tax breaks to households that take these steps by allowing the money spent on these appliances to be tax-exempt. Second, the government can educate people on the simple things that will help to lower the amount of electricity used such as turning off the lights, and the TV. These may seem cliché but if everybody acts on them, then it will make a dramatic difference.

The last and final task this nation must accomplish is to encourage research in methods to harness energy without endangering the environment. Simply put, the United States needs to use renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biomass instead of coal which, according to the EIA, currently accounts for 39 percent of our total energy source. Unfortunately, coal releases large amounts of carbon into the air—the major cause of climate change. But coal is also the least expensive energy source, driving businesses to use coal instead of renewable energy sources to expand their profit. Since they see no benefit in using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biomass, companies don’t tend to use them. Research needs to be conducted to establish cost-effective methods to implement renewable energy sources to ensure that small, new businesses as well as the large, old businesses can participate in the fight against climate change. The U.S. government can encourage research by providing tax incentives to public and private limited companies along with providing funds to government agencies that conduct research in the fields of renewable energy. By encouraging research to find more efficient and cost-effective methods to use renewable sources, the United States can be the leading country in the journey to using more renewable sources.

Although the government does play a large role in encouraging research, the free market with no government intervention would eventually spur interest in companies to research less harmful ways of generating energy. This is led by the fact that eventually companies must find a new source of energy in order to stay in business and meet future demands, since coal won’t be around forever. Also if climate change reaches a point where it leads to the next mass extinction, renewable energy sources must be available, so companies, thinking about the future, will begin to research with or without the help of the government; but this isn’t to say that the government isn’t helpful to reach this goal.

Climate change is happening. Nine out of ten scientists say it is. The United States has to deal with it, so let’s carry out the job of stewards for the Earth and take the proper steps to fight climate change. It’s as simple as that. Limiting industries’ carbon emissions, lowering households’ use of electricity, and researching and switching to renewable energy forms are only a few of those significant steps. Over time, if we, as a nation, take these steps and more, we’ll reach the top of the staircase where Earth are safe from environmental threats.

Over half a billion city‐dwellers live in coastal zones below ten meters’ elevation. Like many other New Yorkers, when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, I watched a dirty atlantic ocean pour into my home. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012, detailed in Climate Change and Cities, were the first‐ and second most costly ‘natural’ disasters in US history. They are the opening breeze of a storm of ‘natural’ disasters that will to come to the US and the world without, and possibly even with, prompt, large‐scale action on climate change.

I put ‘natural’ in quotes since the human and financial costs of Katrina and Sandy were as much artifacts as insults of nature. For example, from 2005 to 2009, the South Ferry subway station—in a high‐risk flood zone of New York City—underwent a construction project that cost $530 million. The station was not flood‐proofed. Sandy’s 4.3‐meter (14.1‐foot) storm surge damaged it severely. Both hurricanes, according to Climate Change and Cities, ‘disproportionately impacted social groups with lower incomes and social status, particularly ethnic minorities and women.’ The chief victims were not the people who decide our climate future. Despite the costs of these and many similar recent disasters, despite the documented expectation that storms of such magnitude will become increasingly frequent within decades (Lin et al. 2016; Garner et al. 2017), politics and leadership in the pocket of fossil‐fuel interests have stymied adequate responses.

Because metropolitan areas are on the front line of climate change, some urban leadership has been enlightened. New York City has set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. The latest progress report from New York’s ’80 × 50′ initiative begins, ‘Climate change is an existential risk to our city, our country, and our planet.’1 The words ‘existential risk’ may have been intended as political hyperbole, but they are unfortunately plausible for the more than half‐billion city folk around the world who live at water’s edge.

Since 1993, the global sea level has risen every year, on average, by more than it rose the year before. The acceleration, if continued, would over double the sea‐level rise by 2100 compared to a sustained sea‐level rise at the current rate. Instead of a one‐foot rise, look for a rise of more than two feet 65.4 centimeters instead of 26 to 33 centimeters in total (Nerem et al. 2018). Some regions, like the Chesapeake Bay area, are likely to experience faster rises; others, slower. Predictions for the next century have wide margins of uncertainty. They have been prone to err on the low side, as new instabilities in polar ice masses and ocean currents are recognized.

Cities are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, through their location, infrastructure, social and economic inequality, and the constraints on their power to govern themselves imposed by higher levels of government. At the same time, metropolitan areas are also particularly empowered to combat the effects of climate change and prepare well for natural disasters, through their population size, economic and human resources, closeness to the problems of climate change, and potential for acting collectively within and among metropolitan areas. These five books2 offer very different perspectives on how metropolitan areas can and should respond to climate change. None offers all the answers, but each contributes important parts of the picture.

Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, reports firsthand from the Greenland ice sheets, Obama’s Air Force One, and coastal metropolitan areas where rising seas have forced a reckoning with climate change. His book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking for the Civilized World is a beautiful account of present realities from Venice to Lagos, the opening act of a harrowing drama.

While early humans adapted easily to rising seas by moving to higher ground, Goodell points out the ‘terrible irony’ that rising seas threaten first and foremost the human constructions that make the Fossil Fuel Age possible: the coastal residential, commercial, and industrial developments, the coastal roads, railroads, tunnels, and airports.

Goodell tells the history of the development of Florida, starting from 14,500 years ago when sea levels were much lower, interweaving accounts of his wading through flooded streets with local organizers and scientists. Miami gets special attention. If you need to be dissuaded from buying Florida real estate, read this book. In the spring of 2016, Goodell asked developers whether sea‐level rise has changed their thinking about the real estate business in South Florida. Florida real estate magnate Jorge Pérez told Goodell that ‘in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this. … If it is a problem for Miami, it will also be a problem for New York and Boston—so where are people going to go? Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?’

Another real estate broker Goodell spoke with ‘was apoplectic over a talk she’d heard that afternoon about whether real estate brokers must be required to disclose flood risks related to sea‐level rise on properties they sell. ‘ That would be idiotic,’ she told me, gulping down a gin and tonic. ‘It would just kill the market.”

In fairness, Goodell reports that some developers combine an appreciation of facts with conscience. Wayne Pathman, under the umbrella of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, which he chaired, organized a evening program on the economic impact of sea‐level rise. As Goodell put it, ‘The unstated theme of the evening was Holy shit, this is real—what are we going to do about it?’ (p. 97). The aim of the event was to get real estate developers to start thinking about their options. Goodell, who attended, reports no plans were formulated from the meeting, but points out that, as seas rise, so will costs of flood insurance and so will banks’ demands for flood insurance on vulnerable properties. Both will hurt real estate values.

The flight from reality in Miami is not the most outrageous one Goodell describes. A far more frightening story of denial and blindness concerns civilian political interference in the future of US military preparedness for rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change. Naval Station Norfolk, at the south end of the Chesapeake Bay, is home to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, and is the largest naval base in the United States. Average sea levels are rising in Norfolk, the surrounding towns and military bases of Hampton Roads, and the rest of the mid‐Atlantic coast about twice as fast as the global average. When former Secretary of State John Kerry visited the base in 2015 and asked naval officers how long it could remain functional, one of them told him, ‘Twenty to fifty years.’ a former commander of naval Station Norfolk, Joe Bouchard, told Goodell, ‘You could move some of the ships to other bases or build new smaller bases in more protected places. But the costs would be enormous. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars.’

Ninety‐five percent of the naval base’s power comes from Dominion Energy, the biggest electric power company in Virginia and one of the biggest burners of coal in the United States. Dominion Energy’s burning of fossil fuels contributes directly to the rise in sea levels that is drowning Naval Station Norfolk. Goodell wryly calls the military’s use of Dominion Energy ‘fossil‐fuel‐assisted suicide.’

Until recently, the US Congress encouraged this disregard for the military impacts of climate change. In 2009, Leon Panetta, then director of the CIA, launched the CIA Center on Climate Change and National Security. Climate change deniers in the Congress, especially some from major coal‐producing states, did not like this effort to understand how climate change could affect the US military as well as the world. Following Panetta’s replacement and under budgetary pressure from the House of Representatives, the CIA closed the Center in 2012. In 2016, the Republican‐controlled House barred the Department of Defense from evaluating how climate change would affect military assets, acquisitions, and preparedness.

Now it is the turn of the Executive Branch to enforce this refusal to prepare for climate change’s effects on national security. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed a defense policy law that required the Department of Defense to list the top 10 military bases most vulnerable to climate changes over the next 20 years and to specify measures (and their costs) that would make the bases more resilient to climate change. The Pentagon released a report January 10, 2019, that began: ‘The ramifications of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations.’ The report listed the climatic vulnerabilities of 79 DoD installations in the US. Not one was overseas. Not one was in the Marine Corps. No detailed mitigation plans were offered. The chair of the House Committee on Armed Services, Representative Adam Smith, responded that the report ‘demonstrates a continued unwillingness to seriously recognize and address the risk that climate change poses to our national security and military readiness.’ He and two other Representatives requested a revised report by April 1, 2019. If a revised report exists, it was not announced by that date.3

Goodell’s view of whether people affect the climate is clear: ‘if you’re still questioning the link between human activity and climate change, you’re reading the wrong book. … how to save coastal metropolitan areas is to quit burning fossil fuels.’ How to achieve that transformation he does not say. He urges metropolitan areas to prepare in the short term by tightening building codes in flood zones and hardening coastal infrastructure, for example. He departs open the larger question of whether and how metropolitan areas can help wean the world from fossil fuels.

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, by Ashley Dawson, professor of English at the City University of New York (College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center), surveys much of exactly the same terrain from the political left. For Dawson, ‘extreme city’ refers to a city of ‘stark economic inequality, the defining urban characteristic of our time, and one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of urban existence.’ How and whether city responds to or ignores economic inequalities of race, class, and gender determine ‘how well it will weather the storms that are bearing down upon humanity.’

Dawson discusses the Red Hook Houses, built in the late 1930s for dockworkers. Red Hook Houses were one of the first and largest federal housing projects in the country as they are the largest public housing development in Brooklyn. Since the 1950s, the neighborhood has suffered a long economic decline as containerized shipping replaced workers and waterfront jobs fled.

By the time superstorm Sandy struck New York City, the brand new York City Housing Authority had shut down electricity, and consequently elevators, boilers, and water pumps, in public housing in the areas at the highest risk of flooding, including Red Hook. This preventive action left roughly eight thousand residents with no heat, water, or electricity. The Red Cross and the federal government did not bring supplies to the neighborhood for days. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency could not be reached by phone, Sheryl Nash‐Chisholm, a resident of Red Hook, and the Red Hook Initiative, a community organization for the youth of the neighborhood, stepped into the gap. Nash‐Chisholm organized electric power for charging cell phones and a warm space to prevent hypothermia. With the support and contributions of volunteers, for three days Red Hook Initiative collected and distributed key supplies including food and water. A colleague dispatched medical delegations to check on vulnerable elderly residents of Red Hook Houses.

This community response to Sandy is an example of what Dawson calls ‘disaster communism’:

Communal solidarities forged in the teeth of calamity can be seen as a form of disaster communism, under which people begin to organize themselves to meet one another’s basic needs and to collectively [sic] survive.

Dawson’s political perspective shapes his view on how and why climate change threatens metropolitan areas:

Urban growth is driven at bottom by capitalism… There isn’t any green capitalist exit from the extreme city, when capitalism is created on the principle of ‘grow or die.’ The fossil capitalism that is driving planetary ecosystems toward a mass extinction event was adopted for the profit of a miniscule [sic] powerful global elite.

Notwithstanding Dawson’s belief that capitalism drives urbanization, metropolitan areas grew before capitalism existed and still grow in today’s least capitalist countries. Demographers say that urban populations grow from natural increase (births minus deaths), net migration (immigrants minus emigrants), annexation (as once the five boroughs united to form New York City), and reclassification (when formerly rural, now densely settled areas are recognized as urban). Around the world, with regional variations, natural increase accounts for roughly three‐fifths of urban population growth. Economic development (including but not limited to that driven by capitalism), cultural development, and environmental quality make cities attractive to their natives and to migrants.

Dawson highlights the importance of what he calls ‘climate justice’: protecting the poor and vulnerable from the ramifications of climate change on an equal footing with the rich and powerful. For example, if New York City builds a wall around lower Manhattan to protect Wall Street from rising seas, how about treating low‐lying low‐income residential areas on an equal basis?