On the topic of environmentalism and environmental policy, the first words that come to students’ minds might be carbon emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, deforestation, fracking or even Al Gore.
In the latest installment of Civics and Snacks hosted by the NU Political Union, students explored topics and policies that go beyond these buzzwords with Northwestern environmental history Professor Keith Woodhouse.
“In the last 10 years or so, the environmental movement has gone all in on climate change,” Woodhouse said during the discussion. He pointed out that a few decades ago public land use was more of an issue for environmentalists. “When politicians talk about environmental issues today, [climate change] is what they’re talking about – whether they’re talking about oil, Keystone XL, or carbon emissions.”
The group of about 15 students went on to discuss and debate possible solutions to environmental issues caused by fossil fuel emissions. Viewpoints ranged from carbon taxation to utilizing nuclear energy as an alternative, or even reaching an international consensus before enacting a comprehensive change in policy.
The group also discussed the possible economic consequences of any actions to fight climate change, which would likely cut into the profits of several industries limited not only to fossil fuels, but the many corollary industries which depend on cheap energy or even plastics.
Students talked about whether or not current environmental circumstances in regards to climate change provide enough of a visible crisis to promote policy changes.
“Certainly in America, it doesn’t feel that way,” Woodhouse said. “We’re pretty shielded from that – things like Katrina and Sandy happen, but there’s not an overwhelming sense we’re in a crisis.”
One student said that the use of fossil fuels is “culturally ingrained” in our society.
“Everyone is used to using disposable plastics and other petroleum intensive products," she said. "A cost-effective way to manage climate change could be to gradually reduce the subsidies to oil industries."
In regards to cohesive policy action, Woodhouse said that “generally, democracy faces its biggest limits in times of crisis.” He compared the situation to times of war, when power can be more concentrated in an executive branch to avoid “weeks of debate” that could prevent important policy action.
Climate change “is not perceived as the same crisis,” he said, resulting in policies that “some people call 'political compromises' and others would call 'watered down responses.'”
Weinberg junior Alexi Stocker, who was involved in organizing the event, said that he feels it is important for students to understand how politicized the issue of climate change has become in American politics and culture.
“It seems pretty evenly split. If you’re a Democrat you believe in climate change, and if you’re a Republican you don’t,” he said. "Once we get beyond that politicization, we can see that there’s a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed.”