Why does America keep ignoring climate change?
Updated: May 2
Lyndon B. Johnson was sitting in his office on a cold November morning in 1965, going through the briefings of the day after a tough year to be president.
Malcolm X had been killed just nine months prior, “Bloody Sunday” had happened eight months before, the Vietnam war was still raging, and protests and violence had been lighting up the country for most of the year.
As the United States was fighting against communism in Vietnam, for the humanitarian purposes of the world, President Johnson received a report detailing climate change and its effects on the environment from his science advisory committee.
The report was a warning that in a few years, climate models would be able to predict changes in future surface temperatures.
President after president let climate change issues accumulate
The report also gathered together almost all of the information we have today on climate change. It understood what climate deniers do not understand even today, that CO2 would create significant climate change due to fossil fuels.There were arguments that because CO2 is a trace gas and invisible that it could not do such significant damage to our ecosystems.
The United States didn’t even rule it as a pollutant until 2007.
Yet, Johnson did what he could, and just a year later focused on the intense air pollution in New York City. Throughout the 60s, New York City was bombarded with pollutants.
The ash from incinerated garbage used to fall from the sky like snow, described as “blackened snowflakes."
Albert Butzel described the reality of this intense pollution in 1964, “I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills.” He also described what he’d see every day when he looked up, “You’d look at the horizon and it would be yellowish. It was business as normal.”
After the big oil spill on Santa Barbara’s shores, the newly inaugurated president, Richard Nixon assured the press and the country that he would work to preserve resources for the future and use the present resources in a better way.
He came through on said promise using the power environmentalism could give him as a president.
Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and put through more legislation to protect the environment with the help of John Ehrlichman. Compared to Nixon, who was involved in environmentalism because of its popularity, Ehrlichman believed in protecting the environment and our resources.
While Nixon took care of the “Vietnam War, massive anti-war protests, a hostile counterculture, conflict in the Middle East, inflation, and an energy crisis,” Ehrlichman handled environmental laws.
As Nixon came and went, the next few presidents stepped in and took the helm. Yet, no decade was as potentially beneficial as was 1979-1989.
A history of this decade in the New York Times in 2018 outlined the importance of the 80s and how close we were as a human population to combating climate change. Actions that were not taken could have avoided the catastrophic events that have occurred and the ones that are still coming our way.
The major powerful countries of the world during this time period came within a few signatures of affirming a mandatory, international system to reduce carbon emissions.
The beginning of the 80s started with believing the catastrophic events of climate change would happen at the end of the decade. It was also a time where climate change was the most pressing and non-partisan issue.
At the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in February 1979, scientists from 50 nations agreed climate change was a problem that “urgently” needed to be addressed.
The next 10 years were spent putting together a global plan to combat climate change that 60 countries would be included in. But the United States would need to lead.
As the United States came close to changing legislation to fight climate change, Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981.
Reagan won based on a campaign against large powers of the federal government. This included the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Once he took office he chose an agency head of the EPA who had experience in the industry and shared his anti-regulatory views. This agency head ended up disheartening, depreciating, disparaging and dismantling the EPA.
Other appointments also came directly from the industry: Aerojet General and Exxon. As a result, the administration cut much of the EPA’s budget. The operating budget fell and the science budget was cut by over 50%. Overall, the Reagan administration did its best to disenfranchise the EPA and other government agencies as a part of its campaign, while overcoming pushback from a Democratic House.
“If we don’t do something, we’re all going to be victims.” - Al Gore
A young New York congressman, Albert Gore Jr., was one of the Democrats who campaigned for environmental protections and fought against the changes that Reagan would make. Gore put it simply when talking to his staff director Tom Grumbly, “If we don’t do something, we’re all going to be victims.”
Gore tried to spread awareness of the greenhouse effect to the media. During a hearing Gore held in March 1982 on the greenhouse effect climate scientist James Hansen said that we would start seeing climate changes beyond natural tendencies of the environment in 10 to 20 years.
Gore did so much to fight against the changes the Reagan administration was making, that he gets the credit for single-handedly saving the Energy Department’s carbon-dioxide program. His hearings got the word out about the greenhouse effect, and many news sources picked up the story.
The presidential advisor turned the tide on this need for action a year later when he said that there was no need to be alarmist about the situation, and no action needed to be taken. Arguably the most damaging comment, was that future generations would be more equipped to handle the problem of climate change.
The hole in the ozone layer emerged in 1985 and the press started to become interested in climate change again. By the time the next presidential election rolled around, environmental protections were on the ballot. Gore ended up dropping out, and Bush campaigned with promises to stop climate change. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect, are forgetting about the White House effect, Bush said”
In November 1989, the Geneva Convention turned into the Noordwijk conference to discuss an international plan to combat climate change. The United States forced the conference to abandon the freezing of emissions by dividing the participating countries. It was inevitably called a failure and a disaster.
The United States eventually joined a climate agreement. Yet it was an agreement that featured voluntary goals with no inflexible limits.
George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all had a campaign stance to fight climate change through the 90s and 2000s, yet none of them made any real progress.
President Biden hoping to reverse course
The United States hasn’t made any real progress in the battle against climate change since 1979. The oldest research on climate change still goes back to the late 1800s, and all of the research that has been done is concentration rather than breakthroughs.
In 2020, once Donald Trump was elected, he started his time in office with a rollback of Obama-era environmental policies. These rollbacks affected clean air, water, wildlife, security and enforcement, as well as opened public lands for business.
Clean air was negatively affected when the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, rolled back The Clean Power Plan and loosened EPA regulations on toxic air pollution. Water regulations were rolled back once flood standards were revoked for new construction.
President Joe Biden went into office and did not only reverse the Trump rollback, but he is in the midst of creating a new future with the infrastructure plan he released at the beginning of April.
The Washington Post has been counting Biden’s reversals of Trump's rollbacks. As of right now, he has overturned 23, targeted 70, and still has 129 policies to target due to Trump’s relentless attack on environmental policies.
One of the first things that Biden did when he got into office was to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which was a successful first step. Yet, Biden has many more environmental protections to maintain and strengthen before the environmental sectors that Trump targeted can start to improve, includingair pollution and greenhouse gases, chemical safety, drilling and extraction, infrastructure and permitting, accountability, water pollution and wildlife.
More than 42 years ago, geophysicist Gordon MacDonald used scientific studies from 1859 to explain what the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would mean for the future.
Today, we are still doing the same thing and seemingly getting the same result. The problem has progressed from climate change, to climate crisis, to a climate emergency.
Moral responsibility equals moral authority
Humanitarianism is the promotion of human welfare, and it could be at the core of U.S. policy. In addition to protecting human welfare as threats come, humanitarianism is also about preventing those threats from reaching populations in the first place.
Obama argued this in 2011, declaring that humanitarianism should be at the core of U.S. policy and prevention should be the first priority.
Lack of prevention leads to the failure of the moral responsibility the United States holds as a world power. What sets the United States apart is what journalist Tod Lindberg calls a “significant administrative state”.
With moral responsibility, comes entanglement in any failure that occurs when acting on that responsibility. No one wants to take responsibility for the failure to prevent climate change.
U.S. policy deems whether Americans act on humanitarian crises. The reasoning usually comes down to how much the federal government is willing to spend to help other countries in times of crisis.
“When it comes to questions of humanitarian intervention, there will almost always be stakeholders in favor of inaction," Tod Lindberg concluded.
“When it comes to questions of humanitarian intervention, there will almost always be stakeholders in favor of inaction." - Tod Lindberg
These primary stakeholders typically follow the consequentialist argument rooted in national interest, yet a moral case could overcome this inaction.
The prevailing argument for moral responsibility lies in our founding documents and the ideas that built and united the United States in the first place. It lies in specifically, the unalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As a result, moral responsibility has been at the base of national interests since the founding of the United States. So, it should still be at the base of national interest as the government has not changed any of these founding principles.
As a world power with a significant administrative state, the U.S. could not argue against providing assistance to victims of a natural disaster to prevent further loss of life. Until Donald Trump became president and broke that pattern.
It’s not about whether or not to act, but why wouldn’t we?
A responsibility to slow climate change
Prevention involves finding out what country is next at risk, what policies can reduce the risk and implementing the policies. Lindberg’s example of prevention tactics on an epidemic applies to the epidemic of climate change.
The first lesson is that we need to learn from past successes and failures for prevention policies to be accurate.
The second lesson is that just like epidemics, the side effects of climate change will not respect national borders. Natural disasters, failing crops, intense flooding, intense heat, nor water pressure will respect borders; everyone will experience what the climate crisis has in store.
While the humanitarian problems of epidemics are similar to climate crises, the scale of the problem is not the same. Epidemics aren’t volitional, while climate change is because we’ve known about it for so long. Now we are responsible for the prevention of failure.
“There could be a consequence here and we have the capacity to do things in advance that will make the consequences less bad,” Linberg said.
With prevention comes the burden of failure, yet with no prevention comes guaranteed failure.
Burden of failure
Is this possibly why the United States doesn’t try to stop or slow climate change because they’ll fail anyway?
A psychology professor at College of Charleston and the co-chair of the Charleston Climate Coalition, Dr. Jen Wright, has focused on the problem of the climate crisis for years.
“From a psychological perspective, humans are conservative,” she said, noting that as a species, humans have never liked change.
Dr. Wright concluded: this is replicated in the systems we created, as we “built a political and economic system that doesn’t like uncertainty and change.” Our species, as well as our political and economic systems, also do not like vulnerability.
On the possibility of failure, Wright focused on psychological tendencies as well.
This is especially the case of the climate emergency, where people are not changing their lifestyles, even with the impending doom of the natural intensities we are continuously experiencing.
Projections detail the irreversible effects of climate change coming by 2030. If we do not cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030 worldwide, the effects of climate change will hit much harder. Then if we do not get to net-zero emissions worldwide by 2050, the coronavirus will look like nothing in comparison to life after that.
Some side effects of climate change include water stress, heat stress, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and sea-level rise.
The world has seen many of these changes in the past few decades, but the intensity is only increasing.
by Brianna Weikel