By Noah Bergam ’21

A few times in the past month I’ve brought up in casual conversation that CLIMATE CHANGE IS THE BIGGEST ISSUE FACING AMERICA, outweighing all other problems except maybe healthcare.

I admit, it’s an annoying way to hijack a perfectly good lunch hour: “Way to make me feel bad about this hamburger, Noah!”

I also will contend that it’s a bad habit to publicly blurt out political opinions for no real reason. I try not to, but when it happens, it happens, and it’s usually a respectful experience I can walk away from with new insights. 

Specifically, I’ve come to realize that my thoughts about how to address climate change––that we need heavy carbon taxes, unrestricted economic overhaul, and short term economic fallout––are not necessarily right, that my all-caps thoughts aren’t necessary, trump card, scientific fact; they’re opinions, and I tend to lose sight of that.

I think a lot of us do. In a way, it’s selfish to go out and assert that this issue is number one because we understand science, that we need to merge all of our priorities down this road, no questions asked. I’m aware of my privilege––I live in a community that has wealth enough to support cleaner industries and not live off manufacturing jobs.

I still believe climate change is the number one issue facing America. But I’ve begun to realize that treating it as such is not the best solution. 

I don’t think that’s hypocritical. My vision for a perfect world doesn’t have to line up with my policy plan for an imperfect world. For example, I might believe abortion is an immoral action, but from a policy standpoint I would be pro-choice, because banning abortion would be a public health disaster; there would just be an illegal abortion system that would end up hurting more than helping.

Similarly, while I may think climate change deserves an immediate Green New Deal, I understand the huge ramifications of pushing an unwilling nation into such a project. 

Of course, it’s quite necessary that we have to make America and the rest of the world come to terms with the facts of climate change. Our nation especially needs to stop treating it as a partisan issue. The battle for activism and awareness is crucial no matter what course of action we take.

But until that battle is won, a real Green New Deal is not an economically viable solution.

The only way out is investing in technology and making legitimate progress in geoengineering, carbon capture and storage, environmental engineering of all kinds, and of course, renewable sources. We must optimize solar and wind, clean up and consolidate nuclear energy––in all cases, positively incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Until fighting climate change becomes profitable, it will be virtually impossible to enact change to the fossil-fuel-industrial-complex without incredible pushback.

What is not going to fix climate change is words alone.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that technology effects change much faster than words. The Industrial Revolution was easily the most effective and indelible revolution in history. While most human-led rebellions ended up putting power back into the hands of the wealthy and powerful, the Industrial Revolution and the eddies of it that still spin around the world today have actually increased the average standard of living in practically every regard, what with vaccines, birth control, and boosted agricultural productivity.

Of course, history provides us with rife examples of revolutions that have succeeded in their goal, that have successfully changed the status quo in regard to equality under law or self-determination.

But climate change doesn’t stem from prejudice or independence per se, although it is definitely tied to those concepts. To fix climate change, making the average person acknowledge its threat and act accordingly is just the first step: a necessary words-based revolution that we must fight, but a first step nonetheless.

Many activists, and even candidates for president, are chasing a second step that is still a words-based revolution––and that is where we see the issues. This second step, in their eyes, is to regulate industry on an unprecedented level, to force the US economy, and hopefully that of the world as well, to discard short term profits for the long term betterment of the earth. Some spin on the concept of a Green New Deal.

The issue is visible in the phrase itself. Roosevelt’s New Deal was catalyzed by dire circumstances, not scientific consensus of a future issue. Global warming is a slow burn, nothing like the sharp crash of the 1929 world economy. World destruction is foreseeable, but is not something the government wants to necessarily take the jump and address at the moment, while the economy is still going well. Governments and economies have a tendency to act ad hoc, or worse, push the issue to the future, rather than foresee issues and act accordingly. The US government, designed with a conveniently short four-year executive term, has done so with a whole host of issues, ranging from slavery to civil rights to Vietnam.

Why should we have reason to believe that today is any different? 

If we do find a solution to climate change before climate change causes massive disaster, we have to find the solution. No matter how much Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion chastise the world’s officials, we can’t rely on such officials to design unrealistic compromises with what little green options they have. They need more to work with. They need something marketable.

That marketable solution, of course, will take government funds in the form of research grants and subsidies; it will take serious, dedicated scientific work. We need to develop the technology that can challenge fossil fuels on a global scale. Because, yes, even if America or Britain or Sweden can forcefully, governmentally realize a green economy, there is certainly no guarantee that developing nations who have yet to reap the full benefits of fossil fuels will follow suit and give up all their potential gains.

When thinking in crisis mode, it is easy to lose sight of just how hard it is to get the rest of the world on the same page as you. The world is abundant with problems. The lunch hour is rife with opinions.

And that lunch hour ends. The world churns on. The Arctic melts. Words certainly matter, but they work slower than we think.