With each passing year, climate change becomes a more important issue—and rightfully so—to American voters. There’s no denying climate change is perhaps the single greatest threat ever faced by human civilization. At least 97% of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that “[c]limate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” And society is already feeling the effects; climate change has disrupted agriculture, lowered the quality of surface water, and increased the risk of extreme weather events and wildfires. However, compared to other national issues such as immigration and tax policy, climate change has received relatively little attention from both parties (During the Democratic debates on June 26th, for instance, only four of the ten candidates onstage mentioned climate change when asked what constitutes the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States).
And the Republicans have even managed to turn this existential threat into a partisan issue, with many prominent members of the GOP denying human-caused climate change. The obvious example is Donald Trump, who once called climate change a “Chinese hoax,” then revised his statement to declare that climate “changes both ways” after a meeting with the Prince of Wales.
But climate change doesn’t need to divide us, and as Americans have shown over and over again, when we are confronted with a collective threat, we can overcome our differences and band together against it. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt made the GOP a leader in environmentalism, a trend continuing with Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, during his governorship, was also a conservationist in many aspects. And efforts to combat climate change need not lead to economic decline; both parties would be wise to take advantage of supporting the economic benefits of a fast-growing green technology sector.
The fact is, taking action against climate change opens up a lot of opportunities for preexisting industries and would lead to the creation of entirely new ones hungry for labor and innovation. And despite the narrative that combating climate change would take heavy government intervention and cause job losses, green technologies, from greener jet fuel to photovoltaic technologies, is creating a whole new sector of the economy, just as the digital revolution did decades ago. The agricultural industry, for instance, would blossom as ethanol—a renewable fuel source derived from feed crops—began to replace fossil fuels. Ethanol releases fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline when burned, and those it does emit are partially offset by the crops used to grow it. Engines optimized for ethanol consumption are likely to increase fuel economy and performance, while growing the crops needed to produce ethanol will create jobs in rural areas. Ethanol is also renewable, unlike the majority of fuel sources used today, and therefore offers a long-term solution to the problem of fossil fuel consumption.
Other ways of fighting climate change bring their own economic benefits. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the two occupations with the highest percent chance of employment between 2016 and 2026 are solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians, with 105% and 96% growth, respectively. And unlike misconceptions of green technologies being a luxury enjoyed by the “coastal elite”, all Americans stand to benefit; rural landowners who open up their land to renewable energy production would benefit from an additional source of income. Reducing overlogging limits excess atmospheric CO2, while also enabling the long-term maintenance of the logging industry. Even the coal industry has a place in the short-term; as electric cars become more prevalent, coal powered electricity will remain their dominant source of power, at least until renewable energy industries catch up (from this standpoint, electric vehicles are much better for the coal industry than internal combustion engine vehicles; the latter simply do not need coal-fueled power plants). People shouldn’t worry so much about loss of jobs; economies have always changed, and invariably, new jobs have opened up as they’ve done so.
Ultimately, though, the most important way to deal with climate change is for people, particularly people in prominent positions, to talk about it. We as a society need to acknowledge it as a pressing issue, and we need to take whatever steps we can to mitigate its effects and strike at its root cause. That only one presidential candidate (Jay Inslee)—who, sadly, dropped out only a few weeks ago—had climate change as the primary focus of his campaign speaks volumes about where we are in terms of addressing this most critical of issues. Is it important to talk about gun control, immigration, and trade policy? Absolutely. But as critical as those issues are, the fact that only 4% of Americans cited climate change as the most important challenge facing the country today shows just how important it is that climate change be given greater attention on the national stage. Climate change has to be talked about; solutions have to be decided upon, and those solutions must be implemented as soon as possible.
The fact is, though, people are right to be worried about changes in long-term weather patterns. After all, this isn’t the first time climate change has affected human civilization. The Bronze Age Collapse—the mysterious fall of the major powers of the Eastern Mediterranean in the half century between 1200 and 1150 BCE—is thought to have been caused in large part by changes in weather patterns that led to droughts and famines across the region. The Little Ice Age, a period of extremely cold winters between 1300 and 1850, was marked by famine, migration, and disease. Though neither of these events was human-caused, both demonstrate the tremendous effect changes in climate can have on society. Granted, our technology and the strength of our institutions give us several advantages today over the people of the ancient Near East and Late Medieval Europe, but their examples should also give us an idea of the threat we face and an incentive to use that technology and those institutions to better combat it. Unlike climate change in these eras, the current cycle of climate change has at least partial human causes, but—even if you do not believe in mankind’s contribution to climate change—unlike our ancestors, we are now capable of developing the technology to reverse climate change, with technologies like carbon dioxide removal technologies gaining prominence.
While climate change has become a political battle, we are seeing more common-sense consensus that green technologies aren’t the job-killing monsters some portray them to be; this summer, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a bill to fund electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and another bipartisan bill is pushing for more federal tax credits for electric vehicle purchases. Those efforts point to a promising future of combating climate change as a way of bringing Americans together to work side by side to combat the threat against us, and make the sky bluer and the water cleaner, instead of one where climate change is another issue of the ongoing political battle.
It takes more than bipartisanship in Congress to make a difference, though. That spirit of cooperation needs to take root in every aspect of society. Americans of all walks of life and of all political persuasions need to take conservation seriously. Regardless of your views on the economy, the military, or universal healthcare, it shouldn’t be too hard to shave a minute off a shower, pick up a piece of trash on the side of the road, or walk five blocks instead of driving the same distance. After all, it shouldn’t be a controversial issue to want clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, and clear skies to enjoy.