FES panel urges political action on climate change

Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, right, discussed public opinion on climate change in a Wednesday panel.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, right, discussed public opinion on climate change in a Wednesday panel. Photo by Blair Seideman.

Hurricane Sandy, February’s blizzard and President Barack Obama’s re-election have created a window of opportunity for urgent action on climate change, Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 told Yale students and academics Wednesday night.

Blumenthal addressed a crowd of approximately 100 in Kroon Hall at a climate change panel that also included Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication Anthony Leiserowitz and Nadine Unger, atmospheric chemistry professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The panel, moderated by the environment school’s Associate Dean David Skelly and sponsored by the Sierra Club and the environment school, focused on clean energy policy and public opinion on global warming.

“The majority of Americans feel we can and should do something about climate change,” Blumenthal said. “We need to seize this moment to push forward as quickly and forcibly as possible with measures that are achievable.”

The panelists discussed shifts in Americans’ attitude toward climate change and the forces that have prevented politicians from taking decisive action. Blumenthal said policymakers have to weigh environmental concerns with economic issues, crafting policies that will incentivize investment in renewable energy without cutting jobs. He emphasized that climate change presents substantial opportunities for economic growth.

Leiserowitz said that in order to push for climate change policy, environmental advocates should understand that opponents of renewable energy are motivated by more than ignorance. He said that, like environmental advocates, those who deny climate change are motivated by a fear of “big government” and a desire to protect American liberties.

“Climate change is just one front in a much bigger war in this country,” Leiserowitz said. “It’s about the proper role of government. These people [renewable energy opponents] don’t trust Al Gore or Barack Obama.”

While Blumenthal said he has hope that Obama’s oratory will continue to generate support for action against climate change, Leiserowitz responded that renewable energy opponents are skeptical of the president and his views. He warned that if the president uses the “bully pulpit” to try to shift public opinion, he will inevitably elicit a stronger backlash from those who do not support government action on environmental issues.

Unlike the politics of climate change, the physics of global warming is not controversial, Unger said. She explained that the Earth experiences natural shifts in climate primarily caused by changes in its orbit, but in the past half century, humans have drastically altered these natural climate cycles through industry, carbon dioxide emissions and air pollutants like aerosol particles.

“We have been enjoying the benefits of the Industrial Revolution without too much of a cost yet,” Unger said. “But payment will come. Air pollution has reached intolerable levels and must be reduced to protect the environment and human health.”

Urging Connecticut residents to minimize their use of road vehicles, Unger told the audience that individual behavior can also be effective in combating climate change. Leiserowitz also emphasized the importance of individual action, calling for an organized social movement demanding political change. He added that advocates for environmental action need to resist the temptation to look for “silver bullets” from policymakers and should instead research the issue to generate a range of solutions for climate change including forestry conservation and waste minimization.

Angel Hsu GRD ’13 said she enjoyed the panel because she feels environment school students often focus on academic research on climate change without discussing political perspectives on the issue.

“Right now at FES, we’re all looking toward D.C. to see how policymakers will harness the power of events like Sandy, Nemo and Obama’s re-election to push for action on climate change,” Hsu said.

The event was broadcast live on YouTube.

Comments