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Informed Comment

Earth Day Means Nothing If We Don’t Limit Carbon Emissions

The first observance of Earth Day was March 21, 1970. I was 17, and along with other students at Broad Run High School, went out with garbage bags to clean up the side of the road leading to the school. Even then, of course, the world faced much more serious pollution issues than roadside litter. But that problem was one we students could do something about.

Given the magnitude of the challenges the earth now faces, provoked by man-made global climate change as a result of our spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere, the problems that were on our minds in 1970 seem in retrospect miniscule. Moreover, the idea that individuals could resolve this problem by taking individual action is a non-starter. It is a collective and infrastructural problem and we have to band together and do something about it through the instrumentality of the government. Unfortunately, our government has mostly been bought by Big Oil, so that the crisis of the environment is also the crisis of American democracy.

There Is No Planet B

In 2011, fossil fuel emissions jumped about 6%, and over the past 20 years these emissions have risen half again as much. The likelihood that the world can keep the average temperature increase to only 2 degrees C is rapidly receding. We are likely headed for a 5 degrees C (over 7 degrees F) increase over the next century or two. The full impact of this radical heating of the earth won’t become apparent for centuries, since the oceans are cold and deep and will only gradually warm. If we produce the 5 degrees C. increase, the whole world will eventually be tropical, including Antarctica, and we probably will lose about a third of the world’s land mass to rising seas, displacing hundreds of millions of port city dwellers and destroying a significant percentage of global wealth. Worse, we as a species evolved and lived during relatively cold eras, and it is not clear whether we can survive in so extensively altered a world. Food issues may arise. The oceans will absorb some of the carbon dioxide, becoming acidic and inhospitable to many marine species. We could lose a lot of those species, with implications for human food sources.

Although the oceans will probably only rise a few feet this century, we could see some severe effects of the warming oceans much sooner. A US Senate hearing just pointed out that there could be storm surges and floods in coastal regions, affecting populations living 4 feet or less above sea level, and affecting energy plants along the shore. Some 4 million Americans live on the coasts at 4 feet or less above sea level, and 287 energy facilities are that low along the shores.

We are not well positioned to deal with this man-made looming catastrophe. Distant harm versus present pain at the pump makes for a very difficult calculation. Even now, government subsidies to promote clean energy are on the chopping block in the US and Germany. China has ambitious plans for renewable and nuclear energy, but is also the world’s leading carbon polluter as things now stand.

The price of solar power is falling, and will probably cross with hydrocarbons in this decade if it has not already done so. But in a world that took seriously the findings of climate science, there would be Manhattan Project-style crash programs to move the world to solar, wind, geothermal and hydro-electric power more quickly. There are many research projects, and some breakthroughs. But what we are doing now isn’t nearly enough.

So from conceiving ourselves as merely littering and poisoning the earth when I was a teenager, we have gone to a realization that we are threatening the earth with heat stroke and drowning. We have taken giant strides backwards. Our laws at state and federal levels, should reward innovation and risk-taking in the clean energy sector. Too often they do not. We need to get the right laws passed to deal with this crisis, and if representatives won’t pass them, we need new representatives.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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