Policy Challenges

An Annotated Summary

Climate science: hoax

Some of greatest obstacles to the implementation of sensible policies to address climate change can be traced to a comprehensive campaign to undermine public confidence in mainstream scientific research. Although the types of media employed are new, aspects of this effort echo strategems used in the past to ward off government regulation of various industries. There are obvious parallels between current attempts by oil interests to cloud public understanding of climate change and the tactics once used by the tobacco  industry to obscure the health effects of smoking. And just as pesticide manufacturers went all out to discredit Rachel Carson after she identified the environmental damage inflicted by DDT, the fossil-fuel industry has attacked the personal integrity of scientists whose findings confirm the negative consequences of rising temperatures around the globe.

EPA drowningUnfortunately, additional forces and factors militate against the enactment of common-sense climate policy.  Of these, perhaps the most formidable is the loss of faith in government that has characterized American politics over the past few decades. Starting with Proposition 13, a California ballot initiative passed to lower property taxes in 1978, Americans have been generally adverse to increasing taxes, an attitude grounded in the belief that markets rather than government should be relied on to solve social problems and meet basic needs.  In the realm of environmental politics, this perception has not only translated into decreased funding for the EPA and other government agencies, it has also increased the power of private interests and industries to write regulations, limit oversight, and block the enforcement of existing laws. As a result, at the very moment when climate change is presenting us with some of the most dangerous threats that society has ever faced, public confidence in government — which is our only means to assert our collective will — has fallen to an all-time low.  

Money stay oilAnother political factor that helps to explain why we have yet to take decisive action on climate change is the ever more powerful role of money in our electoral process.  The fossil-fuel industry lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on state and federal candidates who support their push to expand drilling and extraction on public lands, curtail the development renewable energy, and retain the billions of dollars in subsidies that oil and gas corporations continue to collect despite unprecedented profits.  Along with hundreds of registered lobbyists, fossil-fuel companies also fund think tanks and seemingly qualified academics to combat scientific evidence of climate change and/or its negative effects.

oil lobbyThanks in part to the outsized influence of private industry, the federal government remains mired in partisan battles that have prevented the passage of any significant environmental legislation in recent years. Fortunately, municipal and state officials have begun to take steps toward climate-change mitigation and adaptation. In Massachusetts, for instance, state legislators have repeatedly introduced carbon-pricing proposals that would reduce reliance on fossil fuels by imposing a fee at the wholesale level that would encourage greater efficiency to lower carbon emmissions. Meanwhile, states such as California, where drought and wildfires have already severely impacted daily life and regional economies, have defined the reduction of carbon emissions as a top priority. On a more local level, mayors and other officials in cities and towns across the country are developing and implementing plans to increase the use of renewable resources and prepare for more frequent and more powerful storms, coastal flooding, prolonged drought, and other climate-related disasters.

We can also take hope from the growing commitment to climate education among government agencies, schools, colleges, universities, and countless other political, cultural, and social institutions and organizations. To cite just a few examples:

  • The National Park Service (NPS) has developed a range of comprehensive programs to reduce its carbon footprint and increase public understanding of climate change at sites across the country, having recognized, as NPS Director Jon Jarvis observed in 2010, "climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced."  
  • Like many other cultural instititutions, the American Museum of Natural History has made addressing climate change an integral part of its educational mission by offering numerous resources to make climate science accessible to the general public.  
  • Well over 600 schools, including UMass Lowell, have signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which is designed not only to move these institutions toward climate neutrality, but also to place climate education at the core of their curricula.