*This blog post was adapted from a paper written for a course taught by Nadine Dolby at Purdue University titled "Global Issues in Education"
Humans have the capacity to change the earth. When it comes to atmospheric conditions, we already have, and drastically. Bill McKibben (2010) writes:
… the historic level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the level that produced those ten thousand years of stability, was roughly 275 parts per million (ppm)… since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (we have) been steadily increasing that total, currently raising it more than two parts per million annually. (McKibben, 2010, p. 14)
According to McKibben, the safe amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. Current levels are at 392 ppm. Kevin Anderson believed that even with the richest nations drastically reducing emissions levels are likely to reach 650 ppm (p. 18), leading to temperature increases upwards of seven degrees Fahrenheit and catalyzing the detrimental effects plaguing the planet already: acidification of the oceans, decreased biodiversity such as dying coral reefs, drought, melting ice caps which in turn release huge amounts of methane “locked up beneath the frozen tundra” (p. 20), rising sea levels, longer hurricane seasons. This last item exemplifies the extent to which these issues have occurred already, “One hundred eleven hurricanes formed in the tropical Atlantic between 1195 and 2008… a rise of 75 percent over the previous thirteen years” (p. 8).
Lapham (2012) suggested, “The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorous) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse” (p. 33). The arithmetic is by no means novel. Hardin (1968) popularized the tragedy of the commons more than 40 years ago. Each individual in China and India cannot consume resources at the same rate as persons in the United States, due mostly to population pressures and limited resources. Nonetheless, there is rapidly rising middle classes in each of these countries, and these middle classes are consuming more. Imagine the consequences if per capita energy consumption in China and India were to reach U.S. levels, and if the source of that energy were primarily fossil fuels. The 650 ppm approximation by Anderson would be a vast underestimate, thereby catalyzing the aforementioned, and already apparent, consequences of global warming.
Human ignorance may be our largest issue, at least within the United States. Gore wrote (1992) twenty years ago, “The most dangerous threat to our global environment may not be the strategic threats themselves but rather our perception of them, for most people do not yet accept the fact that this crises is extremely grave” (p. 36). During that same year, Ungar (1992) suggested that global warming was a “celebrity” issue, with environmental issues only gaining prominence in the social and political arenas when “piggyback(ing) on dramatic real-world events” (p. 483). According to Bill McKibben (2012) in an online published Rolling Stone article, “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States”. Perhaps these numbers are not “dramatic” enough to instill the level of change necessary to help us reach the 350 ppm McKibben calls for.
In July 2009, the worlds “largest emitters met in Washington to agree on an ‘aspirational’ goal of 50 percent cuts in carbon by 2050” (McKibben, 2010, p. 18). According to Mckibben, this falls under the category of “don’t bother” (p. 18). Perhaps neoliberal thinkers consider environmental issues from an economic lens, and therefore companies will reduce emissions when faced with financial pressures. One system involving the government, as explained by Stavins (2008), is a cap-and-trade system designed to “gradually” reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Corporations must stay under a federally specified “cap” or the federal government fines them. Company A, an organization who has reduced greenhouse gas emissions, may “trade” greenhouse gas credits to company B, who did not stay under the cap but wishes to avoid being fined. I am doubtful that such a system would realistically pass through congress at caps high enough to ensure carbon levels decrease to McKibben’s (2010) “350 parts per million”, although this system may be a step in the right direction.
Another option may be subbing out the coal factories in favor of alternative sources. For example, nuclear energy is one of the “cleanest” forms of energy as it has 0 carbon emissions (Victor & Tanosek, 2011). However, unpredictable weather patterns have proven to lead to faulty engineering designs, with Fukushima being a recent case in point. With rising sea levels and increased ocean activity, building nuclear power plants, especially on island nations, has proven to provoke deadly, irreversible consequences. Thus, when Victor and Tanosek call for “safe” nuclear power, and given that nature is acting differently than ever before, it is difficult to imagine what “safe” looks in construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants.
At least Obama was considering the issue while in office, although his efforts may seem insufficient. Mitt Romney is skeptical of global warming being an actual threat. In their first debate of the year, Romney scoffed at the money Barack Obama put into renewable energy sources during his four years. Realistically, how much should the U.S. invest in renewables, or is the United States approaching the energy situation improperly? At our current rate of consumption, I honestly believe nuclear might be our best chance, although I still find it unlikely that any nuclear power will ever become completely “safe”. Perhaps it is the behavior, the culture, or the dominant worldview that must change. What Dolby (2012) calls for a new empathy which includes empathy for the environment. Part of my research focus is explicitly on empathy and care, my theory being that by helping students develop these dispositions we will indirectly be nurturing there interset in sustainability (that's both environmental and social issues). In my opinion, Dolby hit the nail right on the head.
Resolving the issue will be an endeavor to say the least. There are websites devoted specifically to this issue. McKibben, the author I have been mentioning in this post, has a website interested parties should check out at http://www.350.org/. I hope that my post does not betray my optimism of a brighter future. I believe change is necessary and possible. Redirecting the course of change, however, is a moderate undertaking. Perhaps the best question is, “Where shall the individual to start?”
Dolby, N. (2012). Rethinking multicultural education for the next generation: The new empathy and social justice. New York: Routledge.
Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the balance: Ecology and the human spirit. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
Lapham, L. H. (2012). Ignorance of things past: Who wins and who loses when we forget American history. Harper's Magazine, 26-33.
McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet. Toronto, Canada: Vintage Canada.
McKibben, B. (2012). Global warming's terrifying new math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719#ixzz26BZi8vrG
Popkewitz, T. S., & Rizvi, F. (2009). Globalization and the study of education: An introduction. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 108(2), 7-28.
Sandel, M. (Producer). (2012) Putting a price tag on life. Justice.
Stavins, R. N. (2008). Addressing climate change with a comprehensive US cap-and-trade system. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 24(2), 298-321.
Torres, C. A. (2011). Public universities and the neoliberal common sense: Seven iconoclastic theses. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 21(3), 177-197.
Ungar, S. (1992). The rise and (relative) decline of global warming as a social problem. The Sociological Quarterly, 33(4), 483-501.
Victor, D. G., & Tanosek, K. (2011). The crisis in clean energy: Stark realities of the renewables craze. Foreign Affairs, 90(4), 112-120.