You wouldn’t know it, but we’ve embarked upon the biggest gamble in 20 millennia. By continuing to profligately burn fossil fuels, humanity is courting disaster.
Corporate interests have tried bamboozling the public, but the science is clear. The fifth assessment report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released this year, states that it is “extremely likely” (indicating 95 percent confidence) that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
Biological systems are frighteningly unpredictable: They don’t obey linear laws and their components are connected in complicated feedback loops. By blithely spewing greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and oceans, we implicitly declare that we’re certain our actions won’t discombobulate Earth’s exquisitely complex ecological cycles. But are we really so confident in our knowledge of nature?
Climatologists are unanimous in declaring that climate change will result in a litany of disturbing changes. As greenhouse gas levels rise, we can expect rising sea levels; decreases in snow and ice cover; heat waves; increased wildfires, drought and flooding; the spread of diseases; diminished air quality; and more intense hurricanes, snowstorms and extreme weather events.
These changes will provoke sociopolitical instability, potentially leading to resource wars and an upsurge in violent crime. A September 2013 Science article by Berkeley professor Solomon Hsiang found that an increase of one standard deviation in mean temperature is correlated with a four percent increase in interpersonal violence and a 14 percent increase in intergroup violence. Since the world is anticipated to warm by two to four standard deviations by 2050, climate change could cause spikes in strife that will roil the globe. As far back as 2007, a Pentagon-funded study labeled climate change a “threat multiplier” that poses a major danger to national security.
Alarm bells should be ringing from New York, the site of Hurricane Sandy, to Vienna, which broke an all-time temperature record this summer, to Australia, where 123 records were broken during 90 days of intense heat. The last three decades were likely the warmest in 1,400 years, and they are just a taste of what’s to come.
We’ve dawdled too long to completely reverse the changes we’ve set in motion. Even if we were to cease all emissions immediately, temperature and sea level increases will probably continue beyond 2100. Barring the removal of extensive quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, the impact of our emissions will be felt for centuries.
So why act? It’s not ideal, but mitigation is our only choice. Either we act and achieve a moderately bad outcome, or we do nothing and endure the chaos and suffering that follow.
Immediately zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions isn’t feasible, but we must still slash fossil fuel usage. Our time is running short. In its September 2013 deliberations, the IPCC concluded that to avert dangerous levels of warming, humanity can only emit a total of between 882 gigatons and 970 gigatons of carbon. By 2011, we had already emitted 584 gigatons. We simply cannot continue burning fossil fuels — our reserves far exceed the approximately 386 gigatons of carbon remaining.
As a university, we’ve made progress in reducing our carbon footprint. The Yale Student Environmental Coalition and the Office of Sustainability are doing excellent work in making Yale greener, and the recently released Sustainability Strategic Plan points us in the right direction. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, run by the School of Forestry, conducts important research on the politics, public opinion and consumer behavior of climate change.
But we need to do more. Firstly, in light of the very real harm that our emissions cause, Yale’s divestment from fossil fuels is imperative. Secondly, the Project on Climate Change Communication needs to be more active and interdisciplinary. To vanquish the most potent threat we’ve ever known, we need a full-court press and national and international coordination. Politicians will need to be informed by academia and that’s where Yale comes in. To that end, we should expand the Project on Climate Change Communication to include political scientists, philosophers, economists and psychologists. Rather than merely studying public opinion, its mandate should be to change it and provide policy recommendations for collective action.
In this slow-burning crisis, the academy has a responsibility to get political. We often imagine that universities are sheltered from society at large, but the ivory tower is a myth. Yale should act now on climate change, for its students’ sake and the sake of all mankind.
Scott Remer is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.