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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Push for a More Equal World

Dagomar Degroot

Human-caused climate change is an environmental crisis that is deeply rooted in the social bedrock of societies around the world. It is, above all, a challenge with social consequences and solutions. To see why, let us run through some of its other dimensions.

The essential science behind global warming is relatively simple. Scientists know that radiation from the sun passes through our atmosphere easily, but that radiation rebounding back into space does not. Even small changes in the composition of our atmosphere can make it harder still for that radiation to escape, and humans have made changes that are anything but small.

It is far more difficult to track how human activity is changing earth’s climate today, let alone how it will change earth’s climate in the future. Yet scientists can now analyze so much climate data, using supercomputers that are so sophisticated, that they can overcome these challenges, too. Broadly speaking, scientists are keenly aware of the challenges we face.

Many know what the solutions might look like, too. They are commonplace even today. All involve using more sustainable kinds of energy for industry, transportation, and agriculture. We have the technology to build clean cars, carbon-neutral cities, and energy-efficient farms. We also have economic tools that have already encouraged people to use and invest in these technologies. Carbon taxes have reduced pollution, while clean power subsidies have created jobs while sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, these economic policies will never be implemented on a huge scale until politicians unite to confront the threat posed by climate change. Despite encouraging headlines, international agreements aimed at addressing climate change will do too little, too late. In the United States, political deadlock may well be informed by legitimate ethical questions that concern the ideal relationship between humans and nature. Do we have a license to exploit the earth to enrich ourselves today, or do we have an obligation to preserve it for future generations (and indeed for its own sake)?

These political and ethical challenges are very real and very serious, but at their heart they reflect deep social pressures and inequalities. Climate change is, above all, a crime committed by the rich: the wealthiest nations, and the largest companies within them. It most threatens the poor, especially in developing nations with weak governments and low-lying coasts or arid hinterlands.

Confronting climate change will require not only social movements that aim to reduce greenhouse gas pollutants or adapt to new weather patterns, but also those that push for a more just, more equal world. Only such movements will yield political action that responds to the scientific consensus on climate change with existing technologies and proven economic incentives. Let us hope that it will not be too late. 

Dagomar Degroot is an assistant professor of environmental history in the Department of History. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Climate History Network, and he is the founder and director of the popular website

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