Can Policy Protect Our Planet?

Z. Hassan-Andoh and U. SchultzSeptember 23, 2016Climate ChangeFeatures

Global warming poses a major threat to the environment and the development of countries worldwide.

In the past few decades, scientists have established that the world is heating up at a tremendous rate. The vast majority of them say the primary cause of global warming is the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to human activity, such as electricity production, transportation, and industry.

Continuing to pump these gases into our atmosphere will most certainly cause problems in the future: the poles are melting and the sea levels are rising. Agreement on how to combat climate change is an incredibly complex issue due to the many obstacles to cooperation. This is a problem faced at both the domestic and international levels.

One of the difficulties in combating global warming on the international level is that each country is sovereign, and it is difficult for nations to reach consensus when any one country can refuse to sign any potential climate agreement. While most global warming emissions happen in rich countries such as the United States, Canada, and China, it is poorer countries that often suffer the consequences first.

For instance, rising sea levels are threatening the island nation of the Maldives. The island is slowly being submerged, putting its population at grave risk. The rising sea levels also threatens Bangladesh. If the sea were to rise just five more feet, 18 million people could be displaced and entire ecosystems along the coastline would disappear. If these problems are not dealt with soon they will continue and probably accelerate in years to come.

For countries with access to fossil fuels, these natural resources play a large role in the economy. Some countries, especially those in the Middle East, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have economies completely based on extracting oil from ancient underground reserves. This extraction is extremely harmful to the environment, but unfortunately the reality is our world is heavily reliant on coal and oil.

Though there are many eco-friendly ways to harness energy, they often prove to be more expensive, a cost not all countries can afford to pay. China, one of the largest contributors to climate change, claims it has no choice but to rely on coal to develop. However, China has plans to build more reservoirs and to better protect forests and wetlands.

Countries want to better the quality of their citizens’ lives. Because combating climate change is expensive, countries resort to fossil fuel extraction because it benefits them in the short term, even though in the long term combating global warming benefits the planet as a whole. Countries such as China and India believe they should be given the same opportunities as more developed countries that have been contributing to global warming for decades.

In 2008, an Indian car company came out with a car called the Tata Nano. Tata Nano was the cheapest car in the world, yet it was extremely bad for the environment. In addition, many countries in the Middle East are completely dependent upon oil for their economies. For example, because of oil Qatar has a per-capita GDP that is among the highest in the world.

Even if the international community were to establish a treaty with effective enforcement mechanisms, another difficulty is the time gap between taking action today and actually seeing the benefits. Countries might become demoralized and break away from the agreement. It is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to punish countries who refuse to comply. A treaty might eventually be disregarded, and global warming would continue to be an issue.

There have been several attempts by the international community to curb global warming in the past, but they have not been effective. This is because of the conflict between what would benefit individual countries and what would benefit the world as a whole. Agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets, have lacked strong mechanisms for enforcement. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated by numerous countries worldwide, but has been ineffective because of each country’s short-term interests. Notably, even though China and India ratified the treaty, they were not obligated to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, as they were deemed developing countries.

"There have been several attempts by the international community to curb global warming in the past, but they have not been effective.This is because of the conflict between what would benefit individual countries and what would benefit the world as a whole."

As the international community struggles to find a solution to global warming, our atmosphere is being pumped full of toxic gases. Though everyone wants to change, the process of making these changes has gone on for too long. Rather than arguing with one another, countries need to collaborate in order to combat climate change.

Right now, nations are working together on a new global environmental treaty which will be discussed in December 2015 in Paris. In order to successfully curb global climate change it is important that countries continue to work together.

In the United States things do not look much better. Climate change policy has been a legislative time bomb. It is an issue that politicians often ignore, preferring to engage in budgetary squabbles rather than face pollution and fracking, and deferring action until the last possible moment, when it will possibly be too late.

One of the roadblocks to increased climate change action is the inordinately powerful fossil fuels lobby. Oil, gas, and coal companies employ lobbyists whose job is to forward the wants of companies they represent to our government. In the 111th Congress (2009-2011) alone, according to Oil Change International, the lobby spent $347,282,110 influencing our national policies. These funds go toward continuing our country’s reliance on fuels that poison us.

The reality is that some parts of our economy are heavily reliant on coal, and increasingly oil, which makes the process of weaning our country off fossil fuels even harder. In states like Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia, the extraction of fossil fuels is the main industry, and the economic trends of the state are linked to that market.

In North Dakota and other states affected by the energy boom, fracking has replaced the incumbent farming industry. Fracking is an oil-extraction process that pumps chemical cocktails into the ground, pollutes aquifers, and wastes massive quantities of fresh water. In heavily fracked areas residents can light their tap water on fire because of the buildup of gases and chemicals in the groundwater.

Even in states we normally think of as progressive and green, like California, legislation is controlled by fossil fuel companies, as shown by the defeat of a bill in 2014 that would have banned fracking until scientists could study its effects and determine whether it was a wise use of freshwater in the drought-stricken state. It seems that because of human greed for power and wealth, our government has disregarded its very reason for existence: representing the interests of the people.

Government support for green energy sources leaves much to be desired, but at times opposition to new technologies comes from the public. For example, a company called Cape Wind wanted to build a wind farm on Cape Cod, but has been mired in court cases for years because Cape Cod residents oppose the project for several reasons. The wind farm, despite having acquired the necessary permits, has an uncertain future. Two of its main customers—National Grid and NStar—have terminated their contracts because the project has taken so long to complete.

"Government support for green energy sources leaves much to be desired, but at times opposition to new technologies comes from the public."

On the other hand, there have been examples of the government endorsing greener energy, such as by giving tax credits for solar panel installations. This encourages homeowners to take the initiative that their elected officials have failed to reciprocate by refusing to invest in green energy on the national scale. If this initiative is renewed by congress, solar power is expected to skyrocket to 16,000MW by 2016.

Possibly the most disturbing part of our country’s environmental legislation is the way we deal with industrial pollution. It is the least visible and, potentially, the deadliest environmental impurity. One could live in a town where poisons from nearby industries have leaked into the ground or contaminated the air, and almost no one would be the wiser until people got sick or died from chemical poisoning.

As those industry left towns, they would leave behind toxic by-products which percolate into the ground, causing massive problems in places like the Meadowlands in New Jersey. In old industrial sites, after the company moves to find cheaper labor, an amalgam of chemicals like cyanide, arsenic, PCBs, barium, or asbestos seep into the ground.

To combat this our government created Superfund, an Environmental Protection Agency program that decontaminates abandoned waste sites. It also passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, a law that allows the EPA to force companies to clean up their poisonous messes.

In Missouri, the St. Joe Minerals Corporation, which once processed lead, has leaked tens of thousands of cubic yards of tailings (containing zinc, lead and cadmium) into a nearby river. According to a 1997 study, 17% of children who lived downstream of this site had concentrations of lead in their blood above the acceptable level.

St. Joe Minerals is not the only case of such blatant pollution. Across our country there are more than a thousand active Superfund sites. This program, although helpful in places like the Love Canal in Buffalo, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, or the old Ciba Geigy site in Toms River, New Jersey, which have been or are in the process of being detoxified, doesn’t do enough. American industry still pollutes our water, air, and ground, despite laws banning it. This is still not an issue on most legislators’ minds, yet it causes myriad problems in our country.

As our government bickers over partisan scores, like Nero fiddled as Rome burned, our country decays. Everyone has their excuse not to look the problem squarely in the face. Some even deny its existence, saying climate change is a natural fluctuation in weather.

Every day without action is a day wasted. America, once the world’s great democracy, has become a land ruled by money. Less and less thought is given to the good of the people—our land is pumped full of chemicals and our aquifers are spiked by our own industries.

There will be a day when we can’t delay action anymore. Our government, our people, and our companies must address the issue decisively. By then, it will probably be too late.


Atkin, Emily. “Oil Lobby Overpowers Voters to Kill Statewide Fracking Ban in California.” Think Progress. May 30, 2014.

Kessler, Richard and Karl-Erik Stromsta. “Update: National Grid ‘Officially’ Cuts Ties with Cape Wind.” Recharge. January 7, 2015.

Kretzmann, Steve. “One Dollar In, Fifty-Nine Out.” Oil Change International. January 26, 2012.

Parkinson, Giles. “Solar at Grid Parity in Most of World by 2017.” RenewEconomy. January 12, 2015.

Schangler, Zoe. “Fracking Wells Tainting Drinking Water in Texas and Pennsylvania, Study Finds.” Newsweek. September 15, 2014.

Wall, Tim. “9 Popular Cities Losing War with Rising Seas.” Discovery News. July 2, 2013.

Zhou, Kelly. “Red, White, and Deadly: Eight of the Worst American Superfund Sites.” TakePart. February 22, 2013.

Zeeshan Hassan-Andoh is in eighth grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He is of Pakistani and Ghanaian origin and enjoys travel, reading, writing, architecture, and drawing Uday Schultz is fourteen years old and in eighth grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys looking at and editing maps, reading, hiking, and debating.