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Climate Change and Our Generation: Step One

by JoAnna Wendel | University of Oregon

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: October 18, 2011
Joanna-Wendel JoAnna Wendel

The 2012 election is heating up, and the issues at stake are more relevant than ever. A number of them are incredibly important to our generation- youth unemployment, deficits, education, student loan debt, foreign policy, and more. We’re breaking them down, giving them context, discussing possible solutions, interviewing experts, and- above all- showcasing the takes of students nationwide. Welcome to ‘NextGen Policy’- a NGJ special series. In the arena today: climate change.

The intersection at the entrance to my neighborhood is the most terrifying driving experience ever. It’s enough to put my mom into a panic attack on a busy Saturday. And yet the county refuses to put in a traffic light because, get this: there haven’t been enough accidents yet.

Waiting for the worst case scenario is common practice today. Until there’s a disaster, there’s no reason to change the way something operates, even if it’s dangerous. This is how America is currently viewing climate change – why change our practices if we don’t need to yet? The pattern of climate-change related disasters, such as stronger storms and longer droughts, hasn’t been regular enough to persuade anyone that changes need to be made. It’s the classic way of dealing with things – first let it get so bad that it’s almost too late.

I don’t want to be the same old fear mongering climate change advocate that we see in the media today, because that’s not how policies are going to change. I believe that we need to take the first step to solving any problem: we need to admit there is one.

Less than half of Americans believe that humans have an impact on climate change, even though 95% of scientists are in agreement. It’s a complicated science, of course, and not one thing can influence something as big as the climate, but humans do have their part in it.

One of the most common counterarguments I’ve heard regarding the dangers of climate change is the fact that the Earth has been this warm – and even warmer – before. This is indeed true, and life prospered. 56 million years ago, the Earth entered a warming period called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. During this time, an enormous release of carbon dioxide filled the atmosphere through some unknown cause, and life was uprooted. Paleontologists have founds signs of massive droughts and floods, as well as numerous extinctions.

Of course, this warming also drove the rise of mammals, without which humans would not exist. After 150,000 years, the plant life on Earth was able to clean the air of excess carbon dioxide, and the Earth’s temperature cooled.

Now that this research has come out, it’s no longer possible to deny that all the fossil fuels we’re burning have an effect on the atmosphere and the environment. We now have evidence of how a warmer Earth operated, even though the cause of the warming was natural. Paleontologists suggest that the warming today is happening faster than it did 56 million years ago, and the remainder of the stores of fossil fuels equals whatever was pumped into the air during the PETM. And adding to the problems are the massive amounts of clear-cutting happening around the world – what plant life is going to be left to absorb all the carbon dioxide that’s pumped into the air?

They also say that the remaining fossil fuels will take three centuries to burn, which I think is a fact that causes most people to scoff. Why should I care if I’m going to be long dead by then? Who cares if polar bears go extinct? Lots of animals have gone extinct before!

Fine – don’t care about the polar bears, but care about the humans that are affected by climate change. The survivors of hurricanes, of tornadoes, of drought. This year, this country has seen a devastating combination of all three.

Climate change isn’t something that can be fixed by using “green” dish detergent and biodegradable toilet paper – there needs to be a policy change and a paradigm shift. Investment into renewable energy like solar, wind, or water. A willingness to work with nature instead of conquering it. An open mind to admit that yes, humans can affect the planet in a massive way.

But first things first. Everybody say it with me: “Man-made climate change is real.”

JoAnna Wendel JoAnna Wendel JoAnna Wendel is a NGJ Voices Contributor and a sophomore at the University of Oregon. She is currently seeking a degree in Biology while minoring in Communication Studies. She is the science blogger and columnist for the Oregon Daily Emerald, and hopes to make a career by mixing science, culture, and journalism.

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