The Science and Politics of Climate Change

Sean Roberti

Several decades ago, scientists began to notice that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were rising alarmingly fast. In just 50 years, the concentration of CO2 has risen from 318 parts per million (p.p.m.) to 388 p.p.m. The concentration hasn’t been that high for hundreds of thousands of years. Carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun and prevents it from escaping back into space, like a greenhouse. We know where the CO2 is coming from. Most of it is coming from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. There are now 30 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted globally every year.

Since 1900, mean global temperatures have risen by nearly three quarters of a degree. Average temperatures during the past 15 years have been the highest ever recorded. The higher temperatures are causing polar ice caps to melt. In the past 40 years, the Arctic ice cap has become 40% thinner. Sea levels have risen by 20 cm since 1900. Many mountain glaciers have also melted. 80% of the glaciers that were on Mount Kilimanjaro are gone.

If Greenland’s ice sheet melts, sea levels will rise by over seven meters. Given what’s at stake, one might expect politicians around the world to be eager to do something about it. Instead, some of them have been making a complete spectacle of themselves.

Christine O’Donnell, a Republican senate candidate for Delaware, USA said that a cap and trade bill to limit CO2 emissions would “kill jobs” (O’Donnell is staunchly pro-life). Of course, Delaware will have lots of jobs if its coastal cities are permanently flooded and have to be rebuilt. Politicians in the US disagree about whether climate change is caused by human activity. The difference is largely a partisan one and the sceptics are usually Republican.

Even though the mathematics of CO2 emissions is relatively straightforward and the science is very clear, many Republicans find it altogether confusing. Roy Blunt of Missouri believes “there isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the Earth.” Mike Crapo of Idaho said that “while there is no dispute over the fact that the Earth’s climate has changed many times over the planet’s history, the underlying cause of these climactic shifts is ultimately not well-understood.” Jim Huffman of Oregon believes that humans could quite easily adapt to climate change.

These climate-sceptic Republicans get a lot of support from the Tea Party movement, a right wing lobby group that sprung up in 2009 to protest against President Obama’s economic reforms. They are portraying the Democrats, who currently have a majority in both Houses of Congress as a party of tax and bureaucracy that destroys jobs. There’s an election looming in November and the Republicans look set to make substantial gains.

Back home, in a recent interview on the Late Late show, former Defence Minister Willie O’ Dea called our carbon levy an “ideological tax”. When people in power start calling science an ideology, there’s definitely something wrong.

In Europe, for the most part, the debate is about what governments should do about climate change, if anything. Some politicians are strangely silent on the issue and others don’t seem to think that much needs to be done. However, very few will try to create confusion or be sceptical about the science. Czech president Vaclav Klaus is an exception. Like many of the Republicans in the US, he thinks that climate change science is all part of a giant Communist conspiracy against the free market. Ironically, the conspiracy theorist Republican Party is heavily funded by oil companies. Many Republicans who until recently accepted the science are now having to toe the party line.

Yet, in spite of all that wrong in the world, there are reasons to be hopeful. Many governments are now taking the issue of climate change very seriously. In Ireland, since entering government in 2007, the Green Party has made climate change a top priority. Thanks to them:

  • · 16% of our electricity now comes from renewables.
  • · New regulations have made new homes 60% more energy efficient.
  • · Over €100M a year is being given in grants to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes.
  • · A carbon tax of 15 euro per tonne is a disincentive for CO2 emissions.
  • · Motor tax and vehicle registration tax are now emissions based.
  • · Ireland is preparing to begin rolling out electric vehicles.
  • · Over 16,000 green jobs have been created.

What happens next is up to us. We all have a role to play in determining our future. As a global community, we have the power to reverse the trend of climate change. We have very little time left so we must do it quickly.

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