Reed Foster

When did we stop talking about the environment? The environment used to be a part of our political discourse. We used to care, or at the very least we used to act like we cared, about reducing our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pitched an aggressive climate action plan to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions. On the other side of the aisle, John McCain developed his own comprehensive climate plan. And climate change remained a prominent issue in the 2012 election, with both Obama and Romney pushing plans to curtail the nation’s dependence on nonrenewable energies. So why has climate change virtually disappeared from our national discourse and Washington’s political agenda?

During his time in office, President Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of climate change. In a 2018 environmental impact report, the Trump Administration projected that the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere will nearly double to 800 parts per million (ppm) by 2100. But instead of using these concerning projections to push for change, President Trump offered us a different narrative: The fate of the planet is already sealed, so why bother cutting consumption?

We can’t afford to waste another four years ignoring the environment. The concentration of CO2 is increasing at an accelerating rate in our atmosphere. In 1960, atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured 317 ppm, up from pre-industrial era levels of 280 ppm. As of this spring, as humans continue to release upwards of 35 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, this number had risen to 417 ppm. Scientists predict that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to increase by 2.5 ppm per year: 100 times faster than any period in Earth’s history. The growing concentration of CO2 has caused our global temperature to increase by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years.

And we have already started to see the disastrous effects of Earth’s rising temperatures. This year, so many powerful storms formed over the Atlantic Ocean that the U.S. National Hurricane Center ran out of names. The NHC had to turn to the Greek alphabet to name storm systems. 2020 also brought the most devastating wildfire season in recorded history, with fires ravaging communities across California, the Pacific Northwest, and other parts of our country.

In his recent article “Controlling the Global Thermostat,” which is featured in Harvard Magazine, Jonathan Shaw writes, “Ronald Reagan merrily told us all that the nine scariest words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’ but it turns out the scariest words in the English language are either ‘We’ve run out of ventilators’ or ‘A hillside behind your house caught on fire.’” But it shouldn’t take an author in the Harvard Magazine to convince us that it’s time for the government to take on climate change. And we can’t fix climate change as individuals. We need our institutions to lead the fight. At the end of the day, we can use as many reusable bags and water bottles as we’d like, but global warming will continue to worsen until the government fiercely regulates industrial pollution.

President Trump, his policies, and his dangerous rhetoric aren’t the only reasons for why we aren’t talking about the environment. Over the past nine months, the COVID-19 health crisis has diverted our nation’s attention away from climate change. The pandemic has dominated our headlines, yielding only recently to coverage on the presidential election. Now, as the nation moves on from the presidential election, COVID-19 has once again resumed its position atop the headlines. What will it take for Washington and the media to start talking about climate change again?

Though the COVID-19 crisis continues to distract us from other pressing topics, it has also demonstrated that our nation can solve critical issues when we share a determined political will. If we can develop, produce, and distribute a vaccine within the span of a year, what could we accomplish if we were equally dedicated to slowing global warming? We should have started working on climate change yesterday, but if we don’t start today, the media headlines in the coming decades will be even more grim than they were in 2020.

Reed Foster of Brunswick is a Bowdoin College senior majoring in environmental studies and English.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: