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Global Warming Panel at the Ath

February 3, 2008

by Sahil Kapur

On Wednesday, January 20th, four Claremont McKenna College professors from different fields of expertise participated in an Athenaeum panel to discuss one of the most burning concerns of the 21stcentury – global warming. CMC’s Emily Meinhardt (’10) moderated the panel, which offered us a wealth of valuable insights from their respective disciplines of chemistry, philosophy, government and economics as to the responsibilities and challenges we face in tackling the issue.

  • Dr. Kathleen Purvis-Roberts, professor of chemistry, provided us with an overview of the scientific issues surrounding global warming. She affirmed that the vast majority of the scientific community agrees that humans are contributing tremendously to climate change. The threats presented include the melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise, severe droughts and more extreme weather patterns, all of which are likely to lead to daunting consequences. She went on to stress the responsibility of developed nations toward the developing world, who do not have the adequate means to protect themselves without severely stifling the rise in their already weak standards of living, and more importantly have emitted far fewer greenhouse gases since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

  • Dr. Alex Rajczi, professor of philosophy, surveyed the issue from a normative moral standpoint. The prominent questions he raised were a) should we believe that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat, and b) does the U.S. have an obligation to do something about it? “We are certainly accountable,” declares Rajczi, because “we are the ones pouring these chemicals into the air.” From an ethical perspective, he advised that the best we can do – as predominantly nonscientists – is trust the conclusions of the majority of experts, unless we have a good reason not to. And although the window for specific policy debates is limitless, the majority of experts are unequivocal in their conviction that global warming is an anthropogenic activity, hence we have the responsibility to curtail the damage we are causing.

  • Dr. William Christian, professor of government, addressed the political realities surrounding global warming. The United States is responsible for roughly ¼ of worldwide greenhouse gases and is as of today, the only country in the world not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. “No doubt it is our responsibility,” says Christian, but it is “a very difficult matter to deal with.” He mentioned the various solutions being proposed in Congress, including the instatement of a carbon taxes to discourage emissions, and a ‘cap and trade’ system whereby the government can set a ceiling on pollution and private organizations can trade their quotas between each other. Although these solutions would be effective, political intricacies such as special interest lobbies are influential in preventing such legislation from being passed. He ended by invoking journalist Thomas Friedman’s outlooks, that we need an economic transformation more than economic regulation, which will occur when the government spends money to build the currently meager green industry.

  • Dr. S. Brock Blomberg, perhaps the most inimitable speaker of the night, offered us the economic realities of regulating the energy industry. He opened with a disclaimer of humility and hubris, declaring that he “doesn’t know much about environmental issues, but he’s still going to talk about it.” The best part about professor Blomberg was his modesty, as he claimed that economists are only assessing the stats and figures involved with regulation emissions, and “not even trying to deal with the human loss or the things that actually matter,” in his own words. He invoked a cost-benefit analysis to assess the harm that would be dealt to the economy in comparison to the benefits, if the government were to regulate the energy industry. The brazen conclusion of a number of economists is that the ‘economic’ harm done would outweigh the ‘economic’ benefits of regulation.

While it is important to appreciate an economist’s opinion on policy matters, this perspective is severely limited by the sheer lack of deliberation on the multiple other dimensions of the phenomenon. Naturally, there are disadvantages to dealing with any potential threat, but an economic cost-benefit analysis does not take into account the mounting health risks (such as asthma), the millions of people likely to be displaced from their homes due to rising sea levels, the water shortages presented by droughts, and the catastrophes looming in the worsening weather patterns, all of which is currently set to transpire at an exponential rate. 

Furthermore, non-regulation today will severely strain the resources available to future generations. Factoring in these consequences, even the most extreme free market economist’s conviction would face an enormous burden.

It is imperative to consider the humanitarian concerns – and not merely short term economic prospects – when weighing the relevance of environmental policy. Nobody that is willing to objectively examine the threat of global warming from all angles would have a leg to stand on in refuting the importance of actions designed to ameliorate the human loss it is expected to cause.

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