Student Opinion: Confronting the Climate Catastrophe

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By Jacob Derin

A recent study found massive air pollution on the New York subway. New Yorkers have been breathing in dangerous toxins daily without even knowing it. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been experiencing another, gradual sickness of the Earth.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about human-caused climate change for years. Last year, the United States experienced a frightening series of natural disasters, from hurricanes to fires. The consequences of our inaction on this front are no longer an abstract potentiality. They are here.

As frightening as these scenes are, they’re small potatoes compared to what could be in store for us in the next few decades. The fires won’t go out. The flooding will no longer be restricted to a relatively unpleasant “season.” In the extreme, these catastrophes could constitute an extinction-level event for humanity.

We don’t have to sit back and watch it happen, though.

Most of the proposals on the table for dealing with climate change face strong opposition from right-wingers who charge them with alarmism and economic irresponsibility.

I think we can safely take the first objection off the table. The science on this issue is clear — we’re staring into the abyss. It’s a question of when we’re going to suffer the consequences, not if.

The economic consequences of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions aren’t trivial, however. We still live in an economy built on fossil fuels. We rely on it for transportation, power and in an increasingly digital world (particularly during the coronavirus pandemic), electricity is no longer a luxury.

Of course, the consequences of not mitigating the effects of climate change would be far worse.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to choose between saving the planet on the one hand and saving our economy on the other.

The best way to avoid that choice is to invest in “green” alternatives to fossil fuel, and the best way to invest in them is to fund research on how to make them more efficient.

Corporations are usually the bad guys in these conversations, and to be sure, they don’t have a great history of environmentalism. But corporations are essentially profit-maximizing machines; thus, they make the choices that they think are most profitable. Fossil fuels are still cheaper than their green alternatives.

As soon as that changes, however, they’ll embrace the new technology.

We need to make a case to businesses that doing this is in their interests. It will be much easier to do this if there’s some credibility to the assertion that green energy will become more affordable and efficient over time. That’s where the majority of our investments in this area should be.

In the long run, climate change is good for no one, not even those who contributed to it in the first place. Short term profit maximization can’t be pursued at the expense of profit maximization in the long run––that would be self-defeating.

Even still, these arguments are unlikely to sway the biggest and most profitable businesses, which will need to invest significant capital now to make this shift. In economics, we call this the effect of an externality. Sometimes, society at large suffers negative consequences that the market won’t punish a business for.

That’s where the state has to come in and impose its own penalties or mitigate individual costs.

Hopefully, some combination of these arguments and those consequences can stop the environmental disaster before it’s too late.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.


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9 thoughts on “Student Opinion: Confronting the Climate Catastrophe”

  1. Alan Miller

    Corporations are usually the bad guys in these conversations, and to be sure, they don’t have a great history of environmentalism. But corporations are essentially profit-maximizing machines; thus, they make the choices that they think are most profitable.

    Actually, government is usually the bad guys.  Not that corporations aren’t the bad guys too.  The worst are corporations modeled to suck the ever-flowing teet of government.  One of the biggest scams is green energy.  Not that I’m against cleaner air and that should be pursued.  I’m talking about numerous scams where legislative bills or voter referendums are labeled as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’, and since most people haven’t figured this out they just see the words and vote ‘yes’.  Then the connected company writes the language via the legislator so that only their firm meets the criteria for the bid.  Welcome to Government 101, a class they won’t teach you at UC Davis, cuz goes who funds UC Davis?

    1. Richard_McCann

      Alan

      I understand this frustration. I fight against it everyday working on electricity issues at the CPUC. But what is your proposed alternative. Private entities will not act on their own because they are able to socialize away their losses and risks through other means, and they are able to exploit our public properties and spaces unless government asserts our collective rights.

  2. Chris Griffith

    Wow confronting climate change what are we going to do when that meteorite strikes Earth or better yet what’s going to happen when that super volcano explodes, that’s climate change what’s going to happen when that super volcano or that meteorite impact sets back technology a few hundred years how are we going to frack for oil with 17th century technology that’s what the young people should be worrying about 🤗

    Sometimes I think young people who write these articles watch way too much television but that’s just my opinion

     

      1. Bill Marshall

        Realize, Jacob, climate change is ‘for reals’, and has always been so (just ask the dinosaurs)… we should certainly not exacerbate it… yet, if we did perfect in not ‘poisoning the atmosphere’, climate will change… called ‘nature’…

        Paraphrasing ‘Hamlet’, “there are more things on heaven and earth, Jacob, than are dreamt of in your philosophies”…

        1. Richard_McCann

          Bill

          The danger is not climate change itself, as we are in an interim warming period in an extended Ice Age. The danger is in the unprecedented rate of climate change–the infamous “hockey stick”. It’s also in the unpublicized acidification of the ocean and melting of the tundra. Our ecosystems and civilizations are not readily adaptable to such rapid changes.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Chris

      I’m guessing that you don’t have house, auto or even health insurance because you’re pretty sure that nothing will happen to any of those things. Unfortunately, the risk of adverse climate change is much higher than your house burning down, and we can’t diversify away or pool our financial risks through simple insurance. We can only take direct physical actions to mitigate and adapt to that risk.

      And please don’t try to give me some tripe that climate change isn’t a major threat. (I conducted the economic analysis in 1990 that led to the defeat of the Big Green initiative and have followed the evolution of climate science closely over the last three decades, changing my judgement as I have learned more.) Unless you can personally carry a $50 trillion insurance policy, you cannot assert that it isn’t a threat.

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