By Kailee Dahan
Long Term Planning and Goal Setting
Humans are notoriously poor long-term planners. While psychologists recognize our species’ unique ability to think about the future, most of our expertise lies in weighing competing information to make short-term decisions with fight or flight responses.
Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert addressed this issue in the context of climate change and detailed that the main factors governing the intensity of human response include: "that the source of the threat should be human rather than inanimate; there should be a moral component; it should be short-term rather than long-term; and that the threat is sudden rather than gradual.”
The issue of climate change does not meet any of these criteria. Furthermore, a major component of long-term planning is setting goals that need to be completed along the way to ensure that the ultimate outcome is achieved. This is challenging as humans tend to prefer immediate gratification and frequently prefer a reward that they can use today rather than delaying gratification even if the reward down the line will be more worthwhile.
When you consider that most people alive today will not live to see the results of sacrifices they make to stop climate change, it is easy to see why the abstractness of the issue causes people to stop trying. Human’s inability to plan long term, set appropriate goals, and delay gratification is putting both our livelihoods and the future of our planet at stake.
The Need for Federal Climate Change Policy
Despite being able to launch humans into space and develop vaccines to eradicate diseases that only a hundred years ago claimed millions of lives, we struggle to enact federal legislation that keeps pace with increasing technology to exploit Nature as a resource and charter a path to address climate change. When you couple this constant pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of long-term costs to develop comprehensive solutions, with politicians disagreeing with the scientific community as to the cause of climate change and whether or not it is even real, it is no wonder little progress is being made to address its severe consequences.
This lack of US governmental action and the current administration’s irresponsible decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, a landmark international agreement committing economic resources to address factors contributing to climate change, including a commitment under Article 2 to “limit global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees,” has propelled state governments, socially responsible companies, and advocacy groups to pledge their own resources and legislate individually to fulfill or exceed previous US commitments under the Agreement.
While more than 20 states and 50 cities across the country have stepped up and committed to uphold the Agreement, renewed enthusiasm on Capitol Hill after the 2018 midterm elections and a wave of new Congress members being sworn in, has resulted in revived efforts to propose a federal framework for addressing the human made causes of climate change.
The Green New Deal and Its Programs
House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), recently introduced a resolution nostalgically termed “The Green New Deal.”
Much like The New Deal programs that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted after his first election in 1932 to fulfill his promise to the American people to stimulate the economy and create jobs in the wake of the Great Depression, the Green New Deal details the long-term impacts of a changing climate, identifies those communities and demographics most likely to feel its drastic impacts, and broadly outlines actions the US should take “through a 10 year national mobilization” campaign.
The Resolution makes significant strides in drawing awareness to the dire need for action and outlines critical areas that should be prioritized with regards to mobilization and funding, including the threats posed by climate change to worsening mass migrations, increasing the severity of natural disasters, and extending human rights to include access to clean water and air.
While the Green New Deal broadly shines a light on these issues, it does not yet offer specific details of how the US will accomplish these goals, outline a reasonable timeline to implement the changes, calculate the costs to taxpayers, or identify which federal departments will be tasked with managing its core components.
The issue of mass migration being worsened by a changing climate is a national security issue. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), long-term droughts that cause crop shortages, food insecurity, and inadequate access to drinking water will trigger an increase in mass migrations of people already living in challenging climates that are prone to hurricane or droughts. The US has unfortunately already seen cases of this with more severe hurricane seasons, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2018.
When coupled with the historical causes of mass migration including political instability or civil wars, this is a serious risk across the Middle East, major regions in Africa, and parts of Asia. Offices within the US Department of State, including the Office of Global Change and the Office of Global Food Security, work to implement and manage policies regarding the threat of climate change to US national security, represent the nation in negotiations with UNFCCC, and lead strategic initiatives to address these threats.
The Green New Deal acknowledges this issue and recognizes that climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” to regions that already contend with mass migration. It also sets an important precedent of calling attention to vulnerable populations including indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, low-income workers, the elderly, and people with disabilities, that will be most disadvantaged its effects. To be more effective, the Resolution could create SMART goals, those that are defined as being specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time sensitive. This increases the ability to hold individual leaders or governmental organizations accountable for program successes or shortfalls.
Worsening Natural Disasters
While record setting heat waves across Siberia, heat related deaths in Quebec, recent wildfires across California and damage from hurricanes including Harvey, Maria, and Irma along the Gulf Coast were not caused by climate change, their intensity and severity were influenced by its contributing factors, including the presence of heat domes, prolonged droughts that create dryer landscapes capable of catching and sustaining fires, and warmer ocean temperatures that allow storms to accumulate moisture and increase in size. These disasters are both deadly and increasingly expensive to clean up. In the case of this past year’s horrific hurricane season, severe storms displaced millions of people and many of those lost or were left with damaged homes.
In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) is tasked with overseeing recovery efforts for natural disasters and paying insured homeowners to rebuild. The cycle of repeatedly funding rebuilding efforts for properties that are in flood zones and have been damaged during previous hurricane seasons has cost FEMA $5.5 billion from 1978 and 2015.
As if this vicious cycle isn’t costly enough, the demand for coastal real estate has led to developers building on wetlands and other ecosystems that act as natural barriers to slow down a storm’s advance inland. This coastal development and demand for real estate with an ocean view has led to nearly 8 million people relocating to the Atlantic and Gulf coast regions from 2000 to 2016. With nearly 20% of the US population living in the path of hurricanes, FEMA can only anticipate these rebuilding costs to increase. This is a government funding expense that taxpayers may not be able to afford going forward.
Additionally, when coastal areas continuously flood, those wealthy individuals who can afford to tend to move to higher ground while lower income families continue to live in high risk flood zones in homes with diminishing values, in a new phenomenon some climate scientists are terming “climate gentrification.”
The Resolutions succinctly documents the fiscal cost to constantly rebuild from these natural disasters, repair public infrastructure, assist people in resettling, and clean up coastal real estate. However, it could be improved by examining the issue through a more Nature-centric lens that stresses the need to preserve Nature for its own inherent purpose rather for developers seeking to build urban centers in sensitive ecosystems and humans constantly yearning for higher property values along the water.
The Resolution could also address how building codes and land permitting can be amended to ensure that if it is appropriate and necessary to develop an area, ecosystems are better preserved and safeguards are taken to minimize the number of people in the path of these storms.
Access to Resources and Rights of Nature
The Green New Deal is novel in calling for an extension of human rights to include clean water, clean air, a sustainable environment, and access to Nature. The Resolution is one of the first to acknowledge the importance of extending Rights of Nature and recognizing that ecosystems deserve to be protected for reasons other than profit and future development.
Earth Law Center (ELC) offers a tangible, innovative methodology to accomplish what the Resolution sets out by making reality “the idea that ecosystems have the right to exist, thrive, and evolve." ELC is already working with state governments to help pass laws to ensure that ecosystems have the same rights as people and corporations.
ELC’s key initiatives include developing resources to aid states in knowing how to use the Clean Water Act to protect rivers in the the Western US, changing the approach to coral reef conservation by removing them from the realm of property, and aiding the town of Crestone, CO in helping research and finalize a resolution recognizing the Rights of Nature. This draws on ELC’s experience in helping do the same in Santa Monica, the first west coast Rights of Nature ordinance.
The Green New Deal’s Legislative Future
The Green New Deal has excelled in evoking an emotional public response and fostering policy conversations. It also strikes the right chord by identifying the multifaceted approach needed to tackle climate change. To increase its feasibility, the Green New Deal should be repositioned as a bill rather than a non-binding resolution. This will allow it to became a law if approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.
While the current US administration is unlikely to support the measure in its current form, changing the format, specifying funding sources for the ambitious programs it highlights, adopting a reasonable timeline based on existing climate change studies, and identifying specific goals to help achieve the long-term solution will better position the Green New Deal to be debated by successive presidents who understand the reality climate change and recognize the need to legislate action on a federal level.
Although current predictions suggest that the resolution may not pass, we can continue to build momentum for a growing global movement to recognize Rights of Nature and shine a spotlight on the innovative ways that individuals, non-profits, responsible corporations, and state and local governments are using their power to effect change. Each of us has the opportunity to be responsible citizens and stewards of the environment. Actions produce results. So if we all just took one action today, we can shift the paradigm. Won’t you join us?