Op-ed

Climate Change: Has Democracy Met Its Match?


harril saunders
November 21, 2016

         It is agreed by all Americans who respect the legitimacy of the scientific process that Climate Change is real and is caused by human activity. For two decades now, Climate Change has been the subject of passionate, but largely fruitless discussions among politicians. Today, a time when seventy percent of Americans accept that Climate Change is a fact, our discussions surrounding the topic must not only be based on the legitimacy of Climate Change as a scientific phenomenon, but also on the fact that Climate Change is one of, if not the greatest, threat that has faced our country since its inception.

When it comes to the threats which have faced America, rising oceans, mass extinctions, and extreme weather events are not similar to that of the two world wars, which merely threatened the prevalence of our preferred ideologies in Europe and Asia. Nor are these threats similar in severity to the War of 1812 and the Civil War, which threatened American existence as an independent, united nation. Climate Change is a threat of an entirely different nature; one that’s potential to fundamentally undermine the sources of viable human life on earth are in a league shared only by the threat of nuclear war in the mid to late twentieth century. Patience and restraint, which are qualities of our government fostered by its inherent democratic nature, allowed for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the Cold War. However, Climate Change is a threat that will not be overcome through patience and restraint. Far from it.

In order to reverse the alarming trends of today, our government, in coalition with other great countries, must take decisive action that will take effect quickly. The fact that the success of American democracy has been built on slow, responsible change forces us to confront the question: Is our current form of government, one that has made us the most powerful country in the world, inherently incapable of overcoming the threat that Climate Change currently poses to mankind?

                One afternoon this past summer, while I was living in Shanghai, China, I asked the host brother I was staying with, a Junior in high school like myself, what he thought of the Chinese government’s efforts to combat climate change. In what sounded like a passage completely regurgitated from a textbook, he explained to me that because China had only recently developed as an industrialized nation, the onus was on the governments of countries like Great Britain and the United States to lead the way in the fight against Climate Change. I pressed him further, asking him why exactly his government had yet to take decisive action, and he told me that the government had fully accepted the importance of cutting emissions, and when they felt the economy could handle it, they would enact sweeping changes that would effectively reverse the trends of global warming.

As the citizen of a country controlled by a centralized communist party that holds all the power, my host brother, a Chinese high school student, felt a sort of confident peace of mind based on his belief that his government would eventually rise to the challenge when the time came. His understanding of the issue makes sense: that a government with power consolidated in the form of one party can respond to threats which require rapid change and decisive action more effectively.

         As a high school student in a country government by two political parties which derive their power from the democratic process, I do not share my Chinese counterpart’s peace of mind. Our government’s recent inactivity shows that it has been remarkably inept at passing legislation that will combat Climate Change, even though the vast majority of of Americans see it as a threat. In addition to this, our government’s recent track record on passing laws that have the overwhelming support of the American public, such as the gun control bill, has been spotty at best. It is not my belief that democracy itself has been the main culprit in America’s failure so far to stop Climate Change. History has shown that when a strong majority of Americans rally around an important issue, rapid change created by government policy is possible. One of the main hurdles our government faces today is Climate Change, and overcoming this existential and worldwide threat will not require us to completely overhaul our system of government, but instead improve its ability to represent the beliefs and desires of the people which it represents.