Student Opinion: As Opinions on Climate Change Shift, a New Future Presents Itself

(Max Whittaker for The New York Times; Kenneth Whitten/Alaska Stock/Design Pics Inc., via Alamy; Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times)

By Jacob Vito

Regardless of the scientific data, Americans have been hotly debating the existence of climate change for decades. However, as the most recent electoral politics cycle comes to a close, a meaningful change in global warming opinions has begun to occur.

According to a Yale survey, a majority of all registered voters, regardless of political affiliation, now support decisive action against global warming. Such data suggests that Americans are willing to take more drastic measures to combat future climate change.

Such data is extremely noteworthy in a country long wrestling with whether climate change was even real, let alone something to be fighting against. Now even self-identified moderate Republicans have leaned towards taking climate action. 

Though professed belief in climate change is undoubtedly lopsided in favor of the Democrats, it seems as if the new wave of 2020 electees has recognized this. Many representatives and senators, sworn in the coming week, have put support behind a Green New Deal. What’s more, the president has begun to put forward his proposals for climate action.

Undoubtedly, Joe Biden’s proposed plan for protecting the environment is promising, especially compared to the direct damage to the climate done by his predecessor. That certainly gives Biden’s team a better score on combating climate change, but sadly, even their proposed actions are still not enough.

Many of the Biden plan’s most noteworthy milestones are set to come in 2030, 2035 and long after. Though such targets are certainly better than previous administrations, they hold a misunderstanding about the situation. 

In short, these timelines are not dictated by environmental necessity but off of self-imposed compromise. They are built with the expectation that we will have time for a smooth transition into “green capitalism.” For that reason, they will sadly be unsuccessful in the goal of stopping the coming disaster.

In reality, we have so little time.

In 2019, a now-famous UN report gave a grim estimate stating that only 11 years are left in stopping irreversible climate change damage. To put that in some currently relevant context, that’s less than three presidential terms. And what’s more, that was two years ago, so now there’s only nine.

What can the world realistically do in nine years? What can cause enough meaningful change to happen in a world enraptured by coal and oil? According to the advocacy group Oil Change International, the North American fossil fuels industry alone reaped over 250 billion dollars in profit in a single year. There is no stopping the momentum of that much money in so little time.

So, in a sense, we’re fucked. 

Even with popular support for better policy, the investment and economic forces behind the environment’s destruction will not allow pollution to be halted in time to avert the crisis. In that regard, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.

However, please don’t let such information lead to despair. Yes, societies will at the very least be severely damaged in the decades to come, but people and their bonds will persist past any catastrophe. In one form or another, we will survive. 

With that knowledge, the conversation can shift from what we can do to stop a potential future to what we should do after it happens.

The common language used to understand climate change must shift to have such conversations. Words such as “if” no longer apply to discussions such as these; we have already caused a catastrophe––it just hasn’t caught up with us yet. 

As with national disasters past, the coming climate crisis can be a shifting point for America’s goals and expectations. And though we may have sealed our fate on the damage immediately coming, the aftermath will be an opportunity to define the future. We will get to decide the shape of the future.

So, what do you like about America? What parts are worth keeping and carrying forward? I’d suggest taking along our idealism, ingenuity and that excellent capability to be selfless.

Oh, and kettle corn. Always a favorite of mine. 

But on that note, what could we stand to leave behind? Perhaps our old biases and prejudices. Perhaps our insistence on “rugged individualism,” especially when it inevitably comes back to bite us. Perhaps the structures that allow fossil fuel companies to lead the world towards disaster so that this kind of catastrophe need not happen again. 

Yes, things will be bad for quite a while, and yes, we must do what we can to mitigate the damage. But this is also a chance to make something new and something better. With this opportunity, we can break old rules and make new ones. Though oil executives and corrupt politicians may dictate the present, this new future is completely ours. 

So, let’s make it a brighter one.

Jacob Vito is a first-year Community and Regional Development major at UC Davis. He is from western Pennsylvania.

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