Thomas Gillen: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: How the people alone can’t stop Climate Change

Another doom and gloom headline flashes across your computer screen. The fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Climate Change, has trotted into town, cutting down the polar bears, scorching Greece and sunny Siberia, purging the ice sheets and pillaging the coastline, and only one word is left in its wake – you. Global Warming is one of the greatest questions of the 21st Century, threatening the delicate balance of entire weather systems and more as the average global temperature rises – and is constantly spun into the individual’s problem, throwing the public eye away from the politicians and corporations obfuscating the issue in the courts for their own selfish agenda. I feel that the corporatocracy of today is the harbinger of a bleak tomorrow in the face of a worldwide crisis.

The paragons of anti-intellectualism and downright scientific denialism among those able to affect change – the elected – is no small sign of this pervading problem in politics. With very few scientists going into political professions, the parliaments are ruled by those who are poorly informed on crucial climate legislation and basic science – when Scott Pruitt, the current USA Enviromental Protection Agency administrator in a major carbon emissions centre is actively assisting the repeal of important legislation in the crusade against global warming, the environment is not in good hands. I personally feel the lamentable lack of scientific representation in government circles is hindering the ability of key countries to act against man made climate change, and the public’s ability to make waves in these issues wanes because of it.

Not every government is so apathetic towards the world’s plight. But even so, they still engage in debatable practices. Nuclear power is a developing, and very promising, energy industry that is constantly, and regularly, demonised by some in the political sphere. The energy output of 6 grams of uranium-235 is roughly equivalent to a metric tonne of coal – and all you hear is Fukushima, Chernobyl! The European Union (EU) is a leading proponent of the Paris Climate Agreements in 2015, and key members are still skeptical as the world’s hourglass runs ever drier – Germany’s reputation for efficiency is not highlighted by how its renewables and nuclear industry barely covers more than its fossil fuels usage, and there is no clear plan on phasing out the fossil fuels in the near future. For every green glowing France, there is an soot-covered Argentina, and with greenhouse gases flooding from the energy sector I think the nuclear fears being stirred by some political leaders are disingenuous and could have far reaching consequences.

Renewables, such as hydropower, fare somewhat better, with a cleaner past than other alternatives, but even that is fraught with trouble – Scotland is practically a world leader in wind energy (‘Scotland is home to the biggest renewable energy resource in Europe. We will set ambitious renewable energy targets and government funding will support low carbon technologies, energy storage and transport alternatives’) , and the UK recently announced a 56% cut to funding in that sector of the energy industry when renewables are still in dire need of help – which once again reflects a running theme in the climate discourse; The flaunting of progress in favour of short-term economic benefit.

There is, however, a price to all of these potential benefits. The start-up costs of these industries is high and not to be dismissed, with potential billions – trillions, by some estimates – of pounds having to be invested in low carbon methods to make any sort of worthwhile waves. Professor Gordon A. Hughes in Edinburgh painted the ever-so cheery picture of £16 of energy by today’s standards going for £38.50 and more, and that is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to funding the ‘cheap’ alternatives – and while both renewables and nuclear are relatively cheap to run once they are set up, they still have their own issues. Nuclear is potentially vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist organisations in both the first and third worlds, with Al-Qaeda allegedly having schematics for various nuclear facilities – the fallout of a dirty bomb alone is a high risk to innocent lives. There is a catch to all of that – the nuclear industry recognises this risk and has made preparations for this scenario, involving military intelligence and more. And fossil fuels, while cheap in the short term, have much larger costs. All of the environmental disasters, from tsunamis to heat waves to harsh winters, will cause much more damage than our worst nightmares – trillions of pounds of property losses, wars over what little scraps of oil can be gathered from depleted sources, and that is not even considering the greatest loss of all – life. When the dust settles, any cost now is going to seem like nothing.

Politicians, however, are not the only ones responsible – moreso a peon of the greater culprit. The corporate impact on the environment is not to be understated – with 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from 100 companies, including the likes of ExxonMobil and Shell, the regular adage of ‘drive less’ and ‘eat less meat’ loses its potency. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that a coordinated effort to phase out staples of society like meat is far down the road, if at all, but the responsibility to reduce their emissions are still there – and while Big Macs are still in high demand, poor infrastructure and lack of subsidization in these industries is going to continue to fester like a tumour, putting profits above improvement. Personally, I’d rather not die to cow farts.

The constant shifting of blame in the climate debate is a terrifying precedent, and it is not being addressed by the top brass in nearly enough force. The public’s responsibility to combat climate change cannot be understated, but the complete lack of a unified vision and focus across the world is a much scarier thought. The Earth will always find a way to continue turning, and another extinct species – humanity – isn’t going to stop it.