Only YOU Can Prevent Global Warming
Shut off a light, avert global warming—seem too simple? Yet Vanderbilt’s Climate Change Research Network (CCRN) says revised individual behavior can do just that.
The interdisciplinary network integrates faculty and student researchers in natural sciences, social and behavioral sciences, engineering, and law and policy with the goal of uncovering a grass-roots solution to climate change. Members are conducting theoretical and applied research on one of the most important and most widely overlooked sources of greenhouse gases: individual and household behavior.
The 20-plus member network includes, among others, Brooke Ackerly, associate professor, political science; Florence N. Faucher-King, associate professor, European studies and political science; Ford Ebner, professor, psychology; Jonathan Gilligan, senior lecturer, earth and environmental sciences, who also serves as CCRN associate director for research; and Michael Vandenbergh, professor of law and CCRN director. These group members recently discussed climate change, the media, and the role individuals play in averting this crisis.
What is the biggest obstacle to stopping global warming?
VANDENBERGH: Two things. First is the belief that there is uncertainty about some aspects of the science, so we should not act. The second is the belief that acting requires increasing the role of government in ways that are worse than the harms of climate change.
GILLIGAN: Erosion of trust. People can’t achieve political consensus on what to do because they don’t trust those who disagree with them. They dig in their heels, demonize opponents and produce gridlock.
EBNER: If people accepted the premise of global warming, they would change their everyday lives to produce a sustainable level of resource use. More importantly, they wouldn’t vote for anyone who didn’t espouse environmental sustainability as a high priority national goal.
Is the media’s reporting on climate change accurate?
ACKERLY: Global warming is a much more urgent issue than portrayed in the media. If we fail to address the climate crisis in the near term, I expect our grandchildren will wonder why we didn’t use our resources and resourcefulness to address this crisis before it became irreversible.
GILLIGAN: Yes and no. Where the media often gets it wrong is the timing. The truly catastrophic consequences are unlikely to occur in the next 50 years. For instance, the media doesn’t explain that even in the worst-case scenario, the predicted 80-plus feet rise in sea levels won’t occur for 300 years or more.
FAUCHER-KING: Fake science has been given equal attention and the discussion of scientific facts increasingly politicized. The media remain far too shy [about reporting on the threat of global warming] because they’re too dependent on advertising income from companies that benefit from energy consumption.
“As long as water comes out of the faucet and the lights switch on, global warming remains too gradual to generate a sense of urgency.”
~ Ford Ebner
What do you say to those who insist climate change isn’t occurring or that it’s part of a natural weather cycle?
EBNER: I point to the fact that no one disputes the fact that the current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of approximately 380 parts per million are far above the average measured from ice samples over the last 600,000 years. This includes the ups and downs of at least five ice ages. Yet current greenhouse gas levels are far above any prior level, and predicted to go higher. Even so, as long as water comes out of the faucet and the lights switch on, global warming remains too gradual to generate a sense of urgency about a warming planet in most people.
VANDENBERGH: There is certainty that increased carbon dioxide levels will increase temperatures and that the source is the burning of fossil fuels, forest burning and other activities. The only real question is how quickly the change will occur and how massive it will be. By the time there’s absolutely no doubt about global warming, the game will be up.
FAUCHER-KING: These people haven’t been paying attention. Some delude themselves when confronted with troubling events, taking an “it can’t happen to me” position. They think global warming is too challenging, that someone else will fix it. Those are fatalist, defeatist and amoral positions.
“By the time there’s absolutely no doubt about global warming, the game will be up.”
~ Michael Vandenbergh
If people were to commit to one permanent change to slow global warming, what would it be?
ACKERLY: Why make one big sacrifice when many little changes add up? Biking or taking the bus to work, having a “local” vacation, eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat make a difference. At my house, we sealed the ductwork so we’re not paying to heat and cool our basement and we weather-stripped our windows. I never idle my car.
EBNER: Reducing demand for fossil fuels can make a difference, including the energy needed for transportation and electricity that mainly comes from coal-fired steam generators.
GILLIGAN: Drive less and use less electricity—these are directly responsible for about one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. This personal use is larger than all the industrial emissions in the U.S. combined.
Do you believe it is already too late to slow or stop climate change?
GILLIGAN: The urgency of climatic change is that greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries to millennia after we release them. We must act urgently today to prevent a catastrophe 100 years or more in the future. If we wait until we see the catastrophe starting, it will be decades too late.
EBNER: We can make individual changes, but we also desperately need a new attitude in leadership at the federal level. Elections are coming, and we should all ask each candidate what he or she proposes to do at the federal level about global warming.
ACKERLY: After Australia (which, like the U.S., relies heavily on coal for electricity), the U.S. has the highest per capita carbon emissions. This is due to the amount of energy we use and the way our energy is produced. We can reduce our individual non-productive energy use, but only a few individuals can make the energy they use cleaner—by purchasing solar panels, for example. The nation as a whole will need to clean up its energy sources if we are going to reduce our carbon footprint. With public investment in the infrastructure necessary to have a national electricity grid, market forces will lead to increased production of, and demand for, carbon-free energy, as well as increased employment in the building of a carbon-free energy infrastructure.
VANDENBERGH: It seems clear that human-induced climate change is already occurring and some parts of further change are unstoppable. My hope is that we still have a decade or two before we pass the point of no return. If we miss that point, we’ll have to deal with the knowledge that we have set into motion tens of feet of sea level increase that will occur for centuries to come. Yet, with small lifestyle changes and a several percent reduction in gross domestic product, all of this could have been avoided. It’s not a great legacy to leave to our grandchildren.