In a February 8, 1965 speech to Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson warned his fellow lawmakers about climate change. He declared, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale” through “a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” More than fifty years later, the United States government has yet to pass legislation to address rising emissions. Without serious action, global average temperatures are likely to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by mid-century, jeopardizing the safety and security of low-lying pacific island nations. While the Paris Agreement has provided hope by encouraging governments to set goals limiting carbon emissions, each country’s pledged reductions are voluntary and not steep enough to limit temperatures below 1.5 degrees,
Nevertheless, the goal may still be possible with sufficient political will, according to a Scientific American article. Hence, this moment in time provides a phenomenal opportunity for young people to make a tremendous impact — one that will literally reverberate for tens of thousands of years. Yet, small policy changes will not suffice to protect the world from dangerous climate change. We must reconsider our collective understanding about economic systems, our planet, and the human condition.
First, we must understand that many Western economies fail to disincentivize large-scale environmental pollution. Fossil fuel companies burn at extraordinary rates and face minimal legal consequences, due to a lack of strong carbon pricing mechanisms. There is irony in this. A citizen will receive a fine for dropping litter on a sidewalk, yet fossil fuel companies face little or no penalty for polluting our atmosphere. This must change. Such behaviors are dangerous and immoral. Western governments must apply rigorous laws to reign in excess.
(Studying abroad in Australia, Chris, along with hundreds of other activists, spelled "Stop Adani" to protest the construction of Guatam Adani's proposed coal mine in Queensland.)
Conversely, governments should reward behaviors that restore balance to our planet and improve the health of its people. Carbon sinks — forests and other green spaces — should be implemented and greatly incentivized. These actions must be grounded in a deep appreciation of national solutions; planting trees beautifully counteracts the harm caused by fossil fuel emissions. In addition, governments should fund innovative technological solutions that remove pollution, such as carbon capture and storage, rather than expel it. Communities will recognize the importance of sustainability when healthy planetary practices are reflected in law.
In addition, people will pay more attention to climate change when its solutions are not presented as sacrifices. Carpooling and public transportation not only reduce emissions, but also serve as wonderful social outlets. hey may even reduce rates of depression. Similarly, riding bicycles and limiting red meat consumption will reduce greenhouse gas levels while improving overall well-being. Therefore, fighting climate change improves the health of the planet as well as its people.
Nevertheless, rethinking government priorities and personal habits may not be enough to limit warming below 1.5 degrees. We must realize that our brains are poorly equipped to deal with the massive threat of climate change. According to psychologist Daniel Gilbert, humans have evolved to respond to immediate threats, and climate change is slow, gradual, and often distant to the human mind. So, our primitive instincts cannot aid in this fight. We cannot trust them to constantly remind us that climate change threatens our planet. Fortunately, education can help overcome this obstacle.
Educators must equip children and adults alike with the critical-thinking skills necessary to appreciate the danger of climate change and to act rationally rather than fearfully. They should also elucidate the reasons why so many leaders have failed to act over the past century. These reasons have nothing to do with the seriousness of global warming. Rather, they pertain to factors such as political convenience, shortcomings in human decision-making, and greed. Once we collectively understand this, we will address the issue with greater speed and vigor.
The industrial world has a particular responsibility to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. We’ve caused the most damage, and posses the most resources. However, we can also set the best example to the rest of the world. Our political movements have limitless potential; we live in democracies where large-scale changes begin at the grassroots level. We must follow the example of previous social justice movements, but also recognize that climate change differs from all other issues in two ways: it is time-sensitive and potentially irreversible. Tremendous pain will be alleviated worldwide if every college student called their legislators to demand sustainable initiatives, as well as initiate their own. Pacific island nations cannot wait, so we must start now.
Chris D’Agostino is a senior at Brandeis University pursuing a degree in Neuroscience. His experience as a climate change activist began during his study abroad experience in Melbourne, Australia last year. He joined an organization called the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and participated in a campaign to stop the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine from being built alongside the Great Barrier Reef. Chris enjoys educating children about climate change, combining music with activism, and learning about the science behind the issue. He feels strongly about carbon pricing because he believes it is a straightforward, easy, and elegant way to disincentivize fossil fuel usage and incentivize renewable energy production. Chris looks forward to shaping the future by advocating policies that are evidence-based and fair.