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Cambridge University Science Magazine
In a recent interview with fellow naturalist Chris Packham, Sir David Attenborough proclaimed that “humanity must come to its senses or face environmental disaster”. We are never short of reminders that climate change is a pressing global problem: we see climate refugees forced to flee their homes, changes in the distribution of some water-borne illnesses and disease vectors, increases in extreme weather events. People from all corners of the world have been, and will be, affected by climate change. Despite the threat of this worldwide issue, political and economic interests of individual countries can often threaten the global collaboration necessary to tackle the problem.

We are never short of reminders that climate change is a pressing global problem

Image by Oran Maguire

Attempts to ignite collaborative environmental initiatives are abundant in recent history. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 has 197 ratifying countries, including all United Nations members. It aims to protect the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting substances, including chlorofluorocarbons. Due to their long lifetimes, these chemicals often end up in the stratosphere. There they destroy the protective ozone layer, increasing penetration of the atmosphere by the sun’s UV rays. Since its beginnings, the Montreal Protocol has succeeded, with atmospheric concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons having levelled off or decreased. However, less than one percent of the total solar energy reaching our atmosphere, and consequently heating the earth, is in the form of UV rays. Reducing chlorofluorocarbon levels is not the most effective way to combat planetary warming.

Averaged over all land and ocean surfaces, temperatures have increased approximately 0.74°C over the last century. This correlates with a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 300 to 370 parts per million. Despite trapping less heat than all other greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide’s long atmospheric lifetime and high concentration in the troposphere make it the most significant greenhouse gas. Humans produce more carbon dioxide than any other greenhouse gas, and as a result, it is responsible for most of the warming.

The Kyoto Protocol was initiated in 1997, aiming to reduce these instrumental carbon emissions. Whilst it succeeded in recognising and acting upon a major climate change contributor, it faced a hurdle when the United States failed to ratify. In 1990, the United States accounted for 36% of global carbon emissions. This was overlooked by American political powers in favour of George Bush’s concerns that signing the protocol “would cause serious harm to the US economy”. The solitary political and economic decision of Bush and his colleagues hugely reduced the extent to which the Kyoto Protocol could succeed as a global collaborative effort.

Image by Oran Maguire. The predicted rise in sea levels could wreak havoc on coastal cities by as early as 2050.
In today’s world, politicians have a whole spectrum of attitudes towards climate change. Within days of becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change. She transferred responsibility for environmental change to a new body – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This bold move attracted a range of responses. For many politicians, campaigners and experts this was a deeply worrying act. The executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, expressed concern that the new Government did not view climate change as a serious threat. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas also voiced her apprehension, declaring that “dealing with climate change requires a dedicated Minister at the Cabinet table. To throw it into the basement of another Whitehall department looks like a serious backwards step”.

Climate is not given a mention in the name of the new department, promoting the notion that the issue is slipping down May’s political agenda, at a time when it should be rising. Furthermore, the number of cabinet voices with a departmental responsibility for the environment and climate change has been halved. The consequences of May’s departmental shake-up depend on whether climate change can be at the forefront of the new entity. The WWF stated that this new department could be a “real powerhouse for change” if climate change “was hardwired” into it. If the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can successfully accommodate a closer link between economic and environmental interests, it may be the key to initiating more effective climate change policies.

But climate change is not only a national issue. Progress can only be made if all countries work together. Unfortunately, the newly elected leader of the premier global superpower does not have the most desirable attitude towards climate change. President Donald Trump famously tweeted: ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.’

As ridiculous as this claim is, the fears it raises are real. Many politicians believe that investing in climate change measures will come at a large cost to business, industry and economy. The claim of Trump’s tweet is, nonetheless, false and far-fetched. Climate change is real. Yet he has, on many occasions, denied this fact. President Trump has previously vowed to “cancel” December 2015’s Paris Agreement, which sets targets for nearly 200 countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. This would be a step backwards in global climate change collaboration. Even more worryingly, this attitude towards climate change is shared amongst the population. According to a 2014 survey, 87% of American scientists said that human activity is driving global warming, and yet only half of the American public held this view. In addition, 77% of these same scientists said that climate change is a very serious problem whereas only 33% of the public shared this opinion.

Progress can only be made if all countries work together.

Photograph by the Press Service of the President of Russia. Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, is the new secretary of state of the Trump administation. This decision has been denounced as a “epic mistake” by environmental groups. This move takes place after the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, at the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

It does not have to be this difficult. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany since 2005, has proved otherwise. She has demonstrated a long-standing dedication to cutting emissions, giving her the nickname “The Climate Chancellor”. Most notably, she persuaded G8 leaders to accept the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and convinced them to agree to carbon dioxide reduction targets. Similarly, Merkel has also led the EU to adopt emission reduction targets. However, in 2013, she intervened in EU negotiations about carbon dioxide emission standards, asking the Irish EU Council President to take the subject off the agenda. This was a complete U-turn, considering her commitment to campaigning for these standards. It became apparent that Merkel wished to protect the “particulars of the German automobile industry”.

Amongst politicians, there is a worry that activating certain protocols may inhibit the growth of certain industries, and a fear that climate change measures will lead to the loss of business. Whilst this may be the case in some sectors, switching to green energies can create new business and employment. In the US alone the Ecotech Institute found a 13 percent increase in green job openings from 2013 to 2014, from 3.6 million in 2013 to 3.8 million in 2014. The institute estimates that there were 1.2 million clean job openings in the first three months of 2015. In the past, companies with high energy demands have avoided solar, wind, and biomass due to the cost of these technologies. Now, however, renewables can be cheaper than traditional alternatives in the long run. Despite being more expensive initially, money can eventually be saved compared with what would have been spent on non-renewable forms of energy. Green energy is worth investing in.

Amongst those political decisions, what can we, as individuals, do? Personal eff orts can be a constructive way to ‘do our bit’, and the importance of these eff orts should not be underestimated. Everyone should strive to recycle as much as possible, avoid wasting energy and reduce their meat consumption. But the bigger political picture must also be considered. Our voting decisions will decide who holds the power to determine the status we give to tackling climate change.