Energy & Environment

What tragedy is needed for action on the environment?

Getty Images

There has been no shortage of recent news regarding some of the deepest political and philosophical divides in our nation. Stories on the environment, from the release of the papal encyclical “Laudato Si: On the Care of our Common Home” to the Supreme Court decision on Michigan v. EPA, have bookended this period. Yet it is the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and the tragedy in Charleston, S.C. that might ultimately provide the best look at the future of environmental causes such as addressing biodiversity loss and climate change. Progress on these issues came recently in two very different ways.

{mosads}In the case of gay marriage, there has been a steady change in public opinion. Googling “tipping point for gay marriage” brings up a variety of articles dating back to 2009, all pointing to various court rulings or laws as key moments. In so doing, these stories show that there was no single moment. Public opinion changed gradually as more and more people came to know friends, co-workers or family members open about their sexual orientation. The issue became familiar, and the public spoke out for their best interests and those of the ones they love.

In contrast, change in the case of the racially motivated shooting in Charleston stemmed from a single, horrible act of hatred. After years of debate, this tragedy led to prominent Republicans such as Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney calling for removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

How are these changes relevant to environmental causes? Sadly, they show that evolution in how we approach the environment will likely come from our direct experience with tragic events and a growing familiarity with the harm caused by environmental degradation.

Severe weather events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the drought in California have made climate change “real” to Americans by providing firsthand experience of what is in store. Most Americans now believe in climate change. Will this eventually sway our lawmakers?

The papal encyclical offers both moral and scientific justification for a fundamental change in how we treat the Earth. Yet several Republican presidential candidates who have made religious and moral reasoning a cornerstone of their policy positions — former Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.)  — have effectively told the pope that moral arguments have no place in the discussion. Will it take an environmental tragedy to reveal that there is indeed a moral component to any decision that places short-term economic gain over the long-term safety and economic prosperity of future generations?

What scale of tragedy will be necessary? Is the loss of $2.7 billion in agricultural production, as in California this year, enough? Is the loss of tens of billions from Hurricane Sandy, or over $100 billion from Hurricane Katrina, enough?

In the case of Michigan v. EPA, the majority decision was predicated on the notion that the costs of complying with environmental regulation borne by the polluters must be taken into consideration before regulating production and release of known pollutants. The notion that costs borne by industry outweigh public health and the public good is troubling. What scale of tragedy is needed for action that is in our collective best interest? Do the justices need to know someone personally affected by mercury poisoning for that cost to have meaning? When will this issue become “real” to them?

In response to the events in Charleston, Haley said that she simply couldn’t “look her children in the face” and not ask for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State House. When our presidential candidates or Supreme Court justices look at their children and grandchildren, who ask “Can you help save the last tigers from dying?” or “Why can’t we eat the fish anymore?” or “Can you do anything to help prevent climate change?,” I wonder what they will say. Will it take more tragedies to open their eyes and minds, or will they wait for the rising tide of public opinion?

Travis is faculty director for the environment at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and is an associate professor of reproductive biology and wildlife conservation at Cornell’s Baker Institute for Animal Health at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Climate change Environment Michigan v. EPA papal encyclical Pope Francis Supreme Court

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video