The year has just begun, but a close look at some of 2015’s most critical remarks and government priorities gives hope for the future of society and our environment. This hope comes from the fact that climate change is finally garnering the attention it deserves from not only the United States but also from countries worldwide. Below is a chronological account of recent, notable statements, giving reassurance to those who have been demanding climate action and that lawmakers, influential thinkers, and world leaders be now serious about addressing this environmental challenge.
At the end of 2014, we heard the United States and China announce they will cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26-28% from 2005 levels, which was a historic agreement considering China had never agreed to peak its CO2 emissions before this (meaning that China will try to have its emissions hit a ceiling and go down from that point forward). Although some, like the head of the U.N. panel of climate scientists, Rajendra Pachauri, say the deal falls short of preventing the worst of global warming, it is still a political breakthrough considering the two biggest influencers of climate came together to highlight this issue and agree to make a change.
Also worth examining is the recently released 2014 Ivory Tower survey – a joint study by Foreign Policy and the College of William & Mary – unveiling the biggest concerns vexing the minds of America’s top policy experts. The survey gathered research from 1,615 international relations scholars from 1,375 U.S. colleges to determine future policy challenges. In response to the following question, “What are the three most important foreign-policy issues facing the U.S. today?” 41% of all scholars said the number one issue is “global climate change” (followed by “armed conflict in the Middle East” at 27%). And, when asked a similar question, “What are the three most important foreign-policy issues the U.S. will face over the next ten years?” Forty-six percent of all scholars listed climate change as the number one issue. These are telling results because they signify that people are finally recognizing that climate change is truly an urgent threat. Additionally, the results show that that educators are teaching future generations of leaders and policymakers that climate change is a priority, long-term issue deserving immediate attention.
Less auspicious was the alarming news that came on January 15, 2015. Based on two separate studies conducted by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the year 2014 was Earth’s warmest since 1880. According to the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Gavin Schmidt, and the Director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, Thomas Karl, the 2014 record-breaking temperatures serve as an ominous signal that there is a long-term warming trend correlating to greenhouse gas trends, and both expected more record highs in the future. Moreover, the two also warned that “impacts will continue to increase,” naming heat waves, sea level rise, intensity in precipitation, mountain base melts, ecosystem shift, and agricultural problems as some of the negative effects that humans will have to pay for.
Though the NASA and NOAA findings are dispiriting, President Obama’s remarks on January 20th were a pleasant surprise. In his State of the Union address, the President not only raised concern for the warming trend, citing that fourteen of the fifteen warmest years fell in the first fifteen years of this century, he also called on the Republican-led congress to not “turn back the clock” in combatting climate change and vowed to make sure “American leadership drives international action.” Furthermore, the following day, the U.S. senate voted 98 to 1 on an amendment stating that "climate change is real and is not a hoax." Even though some politicians still refuse to believe that humans are the primary driver of climate change, the statement is still a step towards shifting the GOP skepticism towards climate change, which must be debased to more effectively regulate man-made emissions and enact environmentally sustainable policies.
Then, in another proactive move, the White House took a major step to strengthen its commitment in tackling climate change, as noted in the February 6th release of its National Security Strategy. In it, “confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund” was listed as one of the main methods for advancing the security of the U.S. and its partners around the world. National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated this environmental engagement, proclaiming, “The science is clear. The impacts of climate change will only worsen over time…so we’re making smart decisions today that will pay off for generations.” Likewise, Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication, declared climate change as a national security priority, one that is on the same level of importance as terrorism and nonproliferation. It is clear that the President and his Administration is overwhelmingly engaged in limiting climate change because of its inextricable connection to a host of serious security challenges.
No doubt, this greater focus by the U.S. government on the environmental impact of insufficiently regulated human activity is positive news, but to have a meaningful and lasting effect on climate change, there needs to be global consensus and global action. In other words, the U.S. must work cooperatively with people of conflicting opinions around the world in order to create and enforce global climate agreements. That is why the agreement with China was such a significant step forward, and the White House is supposedly working to establish a similar agreement with India, which is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter. Luckily, the U.S. has some reliable allies in this fight. Take for example, the audacious assurances made by the leaders of France and Germany.
On February 8, French Foreign Minister Fabius took time out of discussions dominated by the Ukraine-Russia conflict to speak specifically about climate protection. Foreign Minister Fabius urged the necessity for a universal agreement to reduce carbon consumption and temperature rise, finishing with a message of conviction: “climate disruption is security disruption, and we need to prevent it with the same sense of urgency and resolve.” He is clearly calling on all world leaders to prepare for December 2015 when France will host the much anticipated UN Climate Change Conference, COP21, which aims to achieve a legally binding and universal climate agreement.
Similarly, President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel stated in a joint press conference that one of the key issues they will discuss together would be their work to get all major economies to take action in phasing down greenhouse gases and coal-fired power plants, along with other sustainable development goals. This is significant considering the two leaders likely had limited time to debate a small number of topics, so climate change was chosen over the boundless other bilateral, regional, and global issues worthy of discussion.
So, it seems that 2015 could be a year of action given the high-level pledges and steps taken so far. As long as the United States and other major countries remain engaged in combating climate change, there should be no reason to fear the human suffering that could be fueled by climate change. For continued engagement, however, everyone must take responsibility. Public awareness of the environmental threats is crucial, and while normal citizens cannot independently create regulatory laws or international agreements, people have power when they strive to be heard by their leaders. People’s opinions are what pressure their local, state, and federal representatives to take action; it is on us to make them take action on climate change.
As President Obama said at the beginning of this year, “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” so it is time everyone acts like it, or else the people we love now and generations beyond may have to suffer the irreversible impacts of climate change.