The Long-Term Environmental Impact Of Our Short-Term Politics

11/04/2016 01:33 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2017
A Climate Change Concept Image
A Climate Change Concept Image

Thousands of years from now, the scandals, tweets, leaks, tirades, bigotries, insults, violence, sniffles, and stumbles associated with the 2016 election will be long forgotten. However, one barely-mentioned issue from 2016 may still haunt us: climate change. Climate change may be humanity's greatest challenge in this century and far beyond. And the temporal scale on which it will play out is dangerously out of sync with the extremely short time horizon that characterizes our politics.

The outcome of 2016 for both the White House and Congress seems to hinge on the volatilities of the electorate and the churning obsessions of the 24-hour news cycle, including the game-changing announcement by FBI Director James Comey regarding another batch of Clinton emails. November 8th may be decided by a momentarily alignment of the controversies and kerfuffles involving Clinton and Trump. Yet, as David Roberts noted, such is the nature of this election that its outcome could reverberate for millennia.

The 2015 Paris Agreement may be our last chance to effectively address climate change. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases have already committed the planet to destructive climate change for millennia to come. But the impacts are already here, as temperatures rise, droughts proliferate, glaciers and sea ice melt, and weather turns more extreme. Our challenge now is to try to enable human civilization and natural ecosystems to avoid truly catastrophic tipping points and successfully adapt to climate change. We must therefore limit warming to well below 2°C or, better yet, below 1.5°C compared to the Earth's pre-industrial average temperature. We must therefore limit warming to well below 2°C or, better yet, below 1.5°C compared to the Earth's pre-industrial average temperature.

Climate change has been a public issue since the 1980s - it even came up during the 1988 presidential race - but we lost precious decades through inaction or false starts like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, largely because major polluters like the U.S. and China resisted action. Now, we are practically out of time: "The window of opportunity for acting in a cost-effective way - or in an effective way - is closing fast," said Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer in 2014.

Under the Paris Agreement, the world's nations have pledged to keep the Earth's temperature rise within the aforementioned limit. Every five years, the parties to the agreement will submit increasingly ambitious plans to reduce reductions in order to meet the overall temperature target. Though the agreement lacks direct coercive force, it is hoped that through mutual monitoring, peer pressure, and 'naming and shaming,' countries will reduce their emissions and agree to further cuts. Moreover, the U.S. and China and other large emitters are on board. Reflecting the urgency of the task before us, the Paris Agreement ambitiously aims at zero net carbon emissions by the middle of this century.

American participation and leadership in the post-Paris process is essential, and President Obama has broken with his predecessors and made climate action central to his legacy. Because Congress is controlled by Republicans, the world's only climate change denying major conservative party, U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement hinges on executive action, particularly Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The continued viability of the Clean Power Plan and Obama's other climate policies depends largely on the outcome of the election. Clinton and Trump are enormously divided on climate change. Clinton supports the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan and increased use of renewable energy sources. By contrast, Trump has repeatedly dismissed climate change as a hoax. He has promised to reverse the Clean Power Plan, slash regulations on energy production, and ramp up production of fossil fuels, including coal. His campaign website says, "We're going to cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs." He is dismissive, even hostile toward wind and solar power.

Trump's Supreme Court justice appointment to replace Antonin Scalia could provide a 5-4 majority to strike down the Clean Power Plan. Alternatively, Trump could slow or undermine implementation of the Clean Power Plan and Obama's other environmental policies or work with Congress to repeal them. Other industrialized nations, as well as major developing countries like China, India, and Brazil, would in turn feel less incentive to reduce their own emissions and the Paris Agreement would likely collapse.

Yet another delay in addressing climate could be disastrous, ensuring that we soon cross the aforementioned temperature threshold. In 2014, climatologist Michael Mann warned, "If the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036."

Such an outcome would signal a dramatic failure of the world's greatest representative democracy to address a major, existential threat. The ability to sustain itself is a sine qua non of any viable political system. Democracies are always tumultuous, as contending parties vie for power. Still, successful representative democracies maintain overall stability through the rule of law and a political culture that prevents the winners of elections from persecuting the losers. Also, democracies endure so long as the party in power cannot make sweeping, irreversible decisions that threaten the very survival of the polity. Trump's attacks on the press and on ethnic and religious minorities and his vows to prosecute Clinton have threatened the first condition of stability. Humanity's increasing power to rapidly alter our planet's basic systems, coupled with the extreme ecological irresponsibility of Trump and the Republicans, threatens the second condition.

In a 1789 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson argued that one generation does not have the right to encumber future generations' livelihood. However, as political theorist Lisa Ellis has noted, democracies are vulnerable to making irreversible decisions about the environment that endanger the future. As Ellis argues, the answer is not less democracy, but a democratic public that understands its own interests in not irreversibly damaging its own basic livelihood. But such a demos can only exist when there is robust, informed public dialogue about the real stakes involved in an election and about the existential threats faced by the political community. A responsible democratic public should not be buffeted about by shifting rumors of scandal. The media ought to play a major role here, but the Presidential debates involved not a single question to the candidates specifically about climate change.

A group of scientists, writing in Nature this year, echoed Oppenheimer's warning: "The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far. Policy decisions made during this window are likely to result in changes to Earth's climate system measured in millennia rather than human lifespans." The future of humanity may be determined by a moment of hysteria over a set of emails on Anthony Weiner's computer. Imagine that.