Losing a War Against Climate Change

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How much impact can one single decision make?

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The inauguration of president-elect Trump polarized America. Though many were ecstatic at the prospects of bringing back the prosperity, stability, and economic opportunity that marked the post-war years, many were skeptical of the inexperience and brashness of our new president.

Nevertheless, in America, we held onto a hope for the future. “America is based on a system of checks and balances,” we assured ourselves, “nothing much will change.”

In my history class, my classmates and I discussed the course of Trump’s America. We contemplated the impacts of dismantling the Affordable Care Act and pursuing more restrictive immigration policies. As Bay Area natives in our little liberal bubble, many of us were concerned about the rights of minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. But the issue of climate change was even more urgent. With misleading, unscientific presidential campaign statements such as, “It’s cold here; therefore climate change must not exist,” Trump displayed a frightening ignorance of science and cold hard data.

My classmates and I were still hopeful, nevertheless. We naively believed that the checks and balances that had held up the “Great Experiment” would be able to preserve a commitment for global environmental health.

Sadly to say, this hopeful sentiment soon proved to be false.

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“Make America Great Again” is a message that apparently doesn’t take into account the means to an end. While Trump’s campaign can be seen as a conglomerate of idealistic economic objectives, the ways in which he achieved these goals resulted in massive unintended environmental consequences.

The goal: more jobs for coal miners, This action would extend the job market without raising costs and would allow more to enjoy job security and economic sufficiency.

The vehicles: cuts to environmental regulation, such as a joint resolution with Congress that aimed to revoke the “Stream Protection Rule,” which had previously regulated the dumping of mining waste into streams. Pieces of legislation like the one outlined above would supposedly lift financial burdens off coal mining companies and allow for economic gains.

The consequences, in the case of the “Stream Protection Rule:” neurotoxicity from mining spoils, or mining wastes, that are laced with heavy metals such as mercury and lead, both of which are able to find its way into our food supply when they are consumed by aquatic organisms.

But at least all the policies were confined within US borders. No one else was affected by these bills that may carry massive externalized costs. And Americans were maybe even grateful of the short term economic benefits.

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One single decision—Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement—has shocked the world into action.

A snapshot of December’s pre-Paris-withdrawal headlines from the first two pages of a Google News search: “‘Extraordinary’ levels of pollutants found in 10 km deep Mariana trench” –The Guardian, “Climate threat to wildlife may have been massively underreported” –Live Science, “Study shows humans accelerating global warming by 170 times” –ABC Online.

A snapshot of today’s post-Paris-withdrawal headlines from the first two pages of the same Google News search: “Majority of Americans Want Action Against Climate Change, Poll Says” –NBC News. “Democrats Hold Alternative Hearing on Climate Change” –Scientific American. “US Mayors Endorse 100% Clean Energy in Repudiation of Donald Trump’s Climate Change Stance” –The Guardian.

Never before has there been so much coverage on environmental action. Previously, the emphasis of media headlines on the state of the environment was always “harms,” “worsening state,” “dire situation,” but never “act,” “resist,” or “protest.”

It is great that people are compelled to act. Cities all across America, and across the world, for that matter, have pledged to still uphold the terms of the Paris agreement.

However, the ideological damage has already been dealt: a global plummet of morale in the war against climate change.

With the rejection of the Paris Climate Agreement, the global pledge to recognize climate change as a fact of the future and actively take steps to mitigate its damage, America has displayed its alarmingly reactionary foreign policy to the rest of the world. Arguably, America could be seen as the keystone body in the Paris Agreement. As the world’s superpower and second-highest emitter of carbon dioxide, America is responsible for setting an example for other nations by reducing its emissions and helping finance conservation efforts in developing countries.

America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was particularly harmful due to the structure of the pledge. Since it is a legally non-binding compact structured as a group of individual promises to reach the common goal of curbing climate change, each and every participating nation is integral to the efficacy of the agreement, especially an international superpower like America.

Thus, without America, there is no incentive to act. If the country that is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide refuses to commit to a change for the better, who will?

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So what can we do? What’s left other than to hope and pray that other nations don’t follow suit?

Grassroots politics may still be an adequate answer. Regulations from the bottom up: city and state regulations that ensure the sustainable use of resources.

In the 1960s, a group of three women were able to pressure legislators to regulate the dumping of trash into the San Francisco Bay with this concept of grassroots politics. In an effort to save the San Francisco Bay, they made phone calls, held meetings, and collected money from Bay Area residents. Through their efforts, they were able to create organizations that regulated shoreline development and halt the dumping of sewage into the San Francisco Bay.

Thus, if we unite together and vote for politicians that are committed to the mitigation of climate change and if we pressure legislators to adopt greener policies, we, too, can create political change.

Even the small, seemingly insignificant changes can help. Reducing, reusing, and recycling. Making sure that food is composted instead of thrown away in the trash can. Turning off the lights when you’re not using them and taking shorter showers. Change starts from a single person.

In both cases, the key word is “together.” With phone calls, connections, and collective community support, the three women were able to compel legislators to regulate the dumping of trash into the Bay. Likewise, with collective lifestyle changes and political action, we will be able to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

All hope is not lost yet.

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So, the question remains: how much impact does one single decision make?

To the Trump administration, even one small decision can have an incredible global consequence. In the case of environmental policy, the consequence at hand is conceding defeat to climate change.

But on the other hand, one’s decisions to be politically active and to conserve, reduce, reuse, and recycle, when combined with the efforts of millions, can make a significant difference for our climate. For the millions of Americans who still believe in a green future, the individual decision to be eco-friendly, together, may very well save our world.

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