Squinting into the late morning sun in New London, Connecticut, President Barack Obama congratulated the newly-minted graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy with words of inspiration mixed with a decidedly political message.
"Cadets, the threat of a changing climate cuts to the very core of your service,” Obama said. "I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security. We need to act – and we need to act now."
With finite time left in office, the president has increased his rhetoric on the controversial topic, a crucial issue that for much of his presidency was second to more pressing issues.
In contrast to George W. Bush, who was slow to acknowledge anthropogenic global warming, Obama has been more proactive. Yet plagued by more immediate issues such as the 2008 financial crisis and facing staunch Republican resistance, he’s found it difficult to achieve tangible progress on the environmental front.
"Obama has a good grasp on the fact that climate change is something that needs to be addressed,” says SESP sophomore Christina Cilento, ASG's Vice President for Sustainability. "But for someone who strongly believes in the human causes of climate change and thinks that there should be something done to change it, he’s lagged a little bit behind in what he could’ve done.”
Obama has made some progress, such as increasing funding for renewable energy in the 2009 stimulus package and successfully reforming the regulatory bodies whose failures led to the 2010 BP oil spill. The clean air agreement with China, made last November, was by far Obama’s largest victory. China agreed to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, while the United States will reduce its emissions 28 percent by 2025.
The political debate on climate change boils down to a single idea: whether or not human action is a direct cause of more extreme weather. But despite the evidence, Cilento says, many influential entities don’t acknowledge that connection.
"Even if people are cognizant of the general effects of [climate change] there’s just a general apathy, which is something that’s hard to combat,” Cilento says.
Behavior from public officials and national media often exacerbate the problem. Senators Ted Cruz and James Inhofe are just some of the most visible doubters, but nearly the entire Republican party remains unconvinced. Fox News leads the charge from national media, with a steady stream of debate and often outright denial.
According to NASA, "97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” Yet it’s commonplace for national media to hold one-on-one debates, a misleading image that presents climate change falsely as an up-in-the-air question.
In the denier’s corner is the immensely powerful fossil fuel industry. Associate Professor of Economics Mark Witte says that the nature of U.S. politics often allows powerful corporations to stymie environmental action.
"The fossil fuel industry would be a loser under these climate-preserving policies. They know what to do, they want to keep their profits high so they’re very generous with their political contributions,” he says. "Their production is based pretty heavily in a few states, so if you’re a representative in those states you have to defend your constituents.”
That’s why Medill sophomore Scott Brown is leading Fossil Free NU. The group wants Northwestern’s board of trustees to completely divest from the coal industry.
"When you divest from these companies it delegitimizes them. A politician isn’t going to take money from a company that all of these huge institutions that the politician’s constituents respect are saying they don’t support,” Brown says. "If the politician cares about their reputation at all, they can’t support it either.”
It’s part of a national movement that’s quickly gaining momentum. Universities from Stanford to Syracuse have already divested, along with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (ironically) and the government of Norway.
It’s just one example of how younger generations are working to change the landscape on the issue.
Current lawmakers, Brown says, just don't believe they need to act. "The challenge of our generation is to really step up and make clear that maybe it won’t impact you, but it will impact your children and your grandchildren and that’s why you should care,” he says. "Until we're in those positions, we're relying on them to take action so we have to convince them that it matters."
Witte says that, with the mindset of a younger generation, policy combating climate change can become reality both at the domestic and international levels. The key is the right understanding.
"In a way, you can think of it as we’re investing in a more stable environment,” Witte says. "We can invest in more factories or we can invest in weather patterns that are more predictable and less adverse."
Many nations around the world are working towards solutions for the climate, yet the United States itself is often the obstacle. The cooperation of the world’s largest economy and largest carbon emitter per capita would make a huge difference.
"The government has been very half-assed when it’s come to taking on climate change. The U.S. government should be doing much more, and that has contributed extensively to the global problem,” Brown says. "If we don’t take action how can we expect anyone else to take action either?”
Obama's careful diplomacy and advocacy on the issue has in small ways shown that progress is possible, even in the face of continued skepticism, Witte says. But it might not be until the majority of politicians share Cilento’s views that a path to reversing the human effects on the environment will really take shape.
"In the long run, clean energy and sustainability is what’s best for the economy in general,” she says. “It’s going to cost us way more to repair the damage that is going to be done if we do nothing than it would to proactively start searching for solutions."