Philosophy 193 - 10.2.2 Political and Legal Dimensions

The environmental movement began with specific worries about air and water pollution and the effects of pesticides on food crops. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was influential in the creation of nonprofit organizations and government agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), designed to protect human health and the environment. Agencies like the EPA can significantly affect national policy and aspects of the economy related to emissions from factories, use of and disposal of toxic chemicals, and nearly anything else that can adversely impact the environment or human health.

Legal approaches to protecting the environment vary from country to country. The economic drive to produce quickly and efficiently with little to no regulation pits many industrializing countries against the more established economies in Western Europe and North America. China, for example, which currently contributes 43 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions, is attempting to enact policies that extend beyond mere cleanup to foster regeneration of ecological systems (Gardner 2019). With unaddressed environmental concerns, China is currently facing a loss of financial and intellectual capital as 60 percent of citizens with a net worth of $1.5 million or more have emigrated.

International efforts to address the climate crisis have met with mixed success. In 1985, after scientists discovered that some aerosol sprays were causing holes in the ozone layer in the atmosphere, 20 countries initiated the Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of these sprays. The international community rapidly adopted the agreement, and today 197 countries have signed the treaty. One major reason for this success, however, is that these sprays were relatively easy and inexpensive to replace. Such is not the case for global climate change. Currently, there is no single, viable alternative to the carbon economy—a term used to reference our current economic dependence on carbon-based fuels such as petroleum and coal. Renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, are available, but not at the scale needed to fuel high-energy and high-consumption lifestyles. More than 150 countries have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which laid the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015). With these agreements, most nations have committed to future goals for reducing fossil fuel emissions, but to date no nation has made significant progress toward these goals. Climate change is a complex problem, intrinsically tied to an economy that depends on access to inexpensive and abundant fuel sources. It is also a problem that cannot be addressed by one nation or group alone but rather calls attention to the shared nature of our planetary ecosystem and the impact that activities in one location have on every other life.

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