President Obama to discuss climate change in Alaska
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama briefed the press with words no one wants to hear from our commander in chief: 'the alarm bells are ringing.' To what was he referring? No, not the United States' relationship with Iran nor some diplomatic quandary in Cuba. Instead, the president's concern is a more subtle threat: climate change. Hot topic, isn't it?
The occasion for this renewed interest is the president's tour of Alaska, which began this week. Officially, the purpose of the visit is to highlight climate change as 'one of the biggest threats we face.' Such an assessment can be seen as partially the result of political posturing. In a show of partisan hostility, the 2016 presidential hopefuls have expressed disagreement as to the validity of Obama's claim.
For the opposition, Texas Senator and Republican candidate Ted Cruz recently said to The Texas Tribune that global warming is a myth. Other conservative candidates, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), argue that it is impossible to trace climate change to man-made factors. In a stray from the traditional party line, however, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham has voiced support for measures to mitigate climate change. California Businesswoman Carly Fiorina has also argued that scientific evidence points to the reality of climate change.
The Democratic candidates largely support the president's concern. Senator from Vermont and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders argued on Twitter that those who deny the evidence of climate change are 'morally bankrupt.' Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has focused her campaign on expanding production of renewable energy as a response to climate change, demonstrating tacit support for the president's agenda.
Public opinion in the United States also reflects this split perspective. According to a study conducted by Yale University in 2014, 63 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, though only 48 percent believe the phenomenon is caused by human activities. Yet, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of Americans view climate change as a major threat. Though these figures represent a recent upshot in concern, they are low when compared to the world as a whole. For instance, the Pew Research Center also found that 54 percent of individuals surveyed internationally believed global climate change to be a major threat.
Why this variation? One explanation could stem from the way the United States experiences climate change as compared to other countries. Though general awareness of climate change is correlated with the level of education of the individual surveyed, concern for climate change is more acute in the developing world, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The researchers find that this intensified concern is likely caused by personal experience with rising temperatures or the effects of climate change.
According to the United Nations, developing countries are more likely to have experience with these direct effects. Weaker infrastructures, lower-capacity bureaucracies and agricultural-based economies in developing countries mean that citizens in these places are hit harder by changes in weather patterns.
Therefore, it is worth asking whether U.S. apathy towards climate change stems not from scientific superiority, but rather a lack of empathy towards the plight of the developing world. If so, we would do well to reassess our perspective. Reconsideration would be especially welcome considering potential culpability on the part of the United States, which is the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases. Perhaps the president's prioritization of the effects of climate change in one of our own states could push us in the right direction.