Obama’s call to correct climate ignores copious consumption

    President Barack Obama uttered the magic words for casual environmentalists in last week’s State of the Union address: comprehensive climate change bill.

    Nevermind that the fomenting Kerry-Boxer-Graham bill is sure to placate the coal and oil industry. Nevermind that the active ingredient will be an infinitely complex cap-and-trade carbon permit system. Nevermind that the hesitant political attitude of the Democratic Party will likely derail the compromise anyway. The real travesty is that Obama has continued the recent pattern of climate change-centered environmentalism at the expense of the broader environmental movement.

    After over 25 years of ostracism and marginalization, environmentalists must have thought global warming to be the perfect political issue. It had the ability to give everyday citizens an apocalyptic vision of the consequences of their actions, and it seemingly provided a universal threat, regardless of social status or location.

    As our knowledge has increased, however, we’ve come to realize that global warming would have vastly different effects on different societies over a considerable period of time. Not only would tropical third world countries be the first to experience droughts, desertification and extreme cyclonic events, but richer countries like the Netherlands are far better equipped to deal with the dangers of a rise in sea level, for example, than are countries like Bangladesh. This gives wealthier countries incentive to continue the economic and diplomatic status quo for just that little while longer, as evidenced by the Sino-American tensions over the non-binding Copenhagen Treaty.

    Interestingly, there are hosts of other equally daunting environmental problems that are not nearly as divisive as global warming. In the last century, we’ve lost over 20 percent of our forested land. Potentially up to 50 percent of all current flora and fauna are threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction, overuse by humans and invasive species.

    Our country’s daily total of 63,000 filled garbage trucks is more than our landfills can process, and our ecological footprint is already exceeding the global carrying capacity due to poor soil use. If this isn’t enough to animate a movement, I don’t know what is. While the global warming debate is exaggerated through controversies like the East Anglia University debacle, where private e-mails regarding inflation of global temperatures were revealed, there is even less debate on these other ailments.

    These problems are all distinct from global warming, but their solutions can be linked to the adaptations to global warming. Mitigating tropical deforestation — through forest purchase credits or improvements in agriculture — not only preserves biodiversity but also lessens the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
    Decreased garbage would both purify our groundwater reservoirs and reduce the greenhouse gases released via incineration. The phasing-out of our petroleum-based herbicide and pesticide industries would also improve the health of our soils and our own neural systems.In truth, these scenarios all relate to more sensible consumption patterns, especially for developed nations.

    This type of environmentalism is often considered radical or idealistic. In comparison to the global warming agenda though, this environmentalism has gotten things done. Whether it is the Clean Air Act, the Basel Convention on waste disposal, the Endangered Species Act, or the much-praised Montreal Protocol on CFC elimination, environmentalism has been every bit as successful in prior pursuits as it has when limited to global warming.

    Decades into the impressive global organization on climate change, all we have to show for it is the American-ignored Kyoto Protocol — many of its signatories have failed to meet their abatement assignments — and a non-binding Copenhagen treaty.

    Despite the recent fad of global warming skepticism, climate change is a real threat to the way we conduct our lives. This, and other great environmental challenges, are best met by comprehensive environmentalism — an environmentalism that embraces more holistic lifestyle changes like decreased consumption and a heightened appreciation for biodiversity. These features of a well-rounded environmentalism would also reduce our contribution to global warming. What we can’t afford is an environmentalism discredited by climate change dithering.

    Addressing our over-consumptive ways can remedy environmental issues more salient to the American public while still responding to the threats posed by global warming. We can kill two birds with one stone, or more appropriately, save two birds with one bird feeder.

    E-mail Devin Braun at dcbraun@wm.edu.


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