Image description: A photograph of an aerial view of a residential area in Pakistan after heavy monsoon flooding. The residential buildings and trees are sparsely distributed and surrounded by water.
As climate disasters have grown in intensity and frequency around the world, the conversation surrounding the long-term implications of climate change has not only fueled pessimism and hopelessness but has also generated radical controversy.
In June 2022, Pakistan experienced flooding that “submerged more than a third of the country and killed at least 1,300 people,” followed by an extreme heat wave reaching 120 F, or 48.9 C. For the past two months, China experienced one of its hottest summers with its lowest level of rainfall in 61 years, resulting in forest fires as well as damaged crops, water sources, and power supplies. These climate extremes have impacted the lives of over 900 people in more than 17 provinces and about 2.2 million hectares of agricultural land in China, leading to food and water insecurity.
In October 2022, Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm, devastated communities across Florida. The deadliest tropical storm to hit Florida since 1935, Hurricane Ian has caused power outages for hundreds of thousands of people, the rise of river levels, the flooding of roads and homes, and the deaths of 106 people.
While some skeptics claim that global warming and climate disasters are caused by natural fluctuations of the Earth’s surface temperature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 1,300 scientific experts from countries across the world under the authority of the United Nations, have found that “there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.” Furthermore, scientists at NASA have observed many instances of rapid climate change in the past twenty years, including rising global temperatures, warming of the ocean, shrinking ice sheets, retreating glaciers, decreasing snow cover, rising sea levels, declining arctic sea ice, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification.
Despite thorough research on the issue, politicians in Florida and across the world only seem to care about the effects of climate change when the effects directly impact their communities. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz called on the U.S. government to send aid to Florida for the damages and losses incurred by residents and businesses.
However, on Friday, September 30th, two days before Hurricane Ian hit Florida, Gaetz voted “no” on a bill that would provide $15 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to spend on relief for those impacted by natural disasters, such as those afflicted by Hurricane Ian. While Gaetz initially described the bill as “legislation that harms our federalist system, deprives states of the ability to innovate, and continues the failures of the federal government,” he later seemed to understand the necessity of providing money to federal disaster relief funds.
While some politicians, like Gaetz, are willfully ignorant of the harms of climate change until it directly affects them and their chances for re-election, political officials that do comprehend why the issue needs to be confronted tend to oppose legislation that will actually reduce human-caused climate change. During his first week in office in 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order addressing a series of environmental issues and appointed a chief science officer to “prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring, and analysis.” Additionally, in 2022, DeSantis signed a bill that dedicated $640 million to prepare communities for future sea level rise, flooding, and more intense storms.
However, neither of these legislative actions addresses the issue of human-caused climate change. Preventative measures such as limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be a more progressive step toward mitigating climate change. Thus, while DeSantis has been taking surface-level steps to adapt Florida to the conditions caused by climate change, he has not executed any policies that will reduce human-caused climate change or limit greenhouse gas emissions. According to Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University and the director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, to mitigate climate change in Florida, DeSantis would need to invest in “reducing Florida’s emissions and positioning the state to enter the competitive race for clean energy alternatives.”
Despite claiming to care about the harms caused by climate change, DeSantis has enacted two policies in Florida that prevent the growth of alternative sources of clean energy. The first policy banned cities in Florida from adopting 100% clean energy goals, with the justification that these goals “discriminate against fossil fuels.” The second policy banned Florida’s $186 billion pension fund from “making investment decisions that consider climate change.” DeSantis’s hypocritical leadership will likely lead to increased climate extremes in Florida in the future unless the root sources of human-caused climate change are addressed.
Human-caused climate change is a growing and unchecked problem that needs to be mitigated. Despite leaders across the world promising to tackle climate change in the Paris Agreement and other climate legislation, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 5% in 2021 and are expected to rise again this year.
According to The Carbon Majors Database, a report published in 2015 by the Carbon Disclosure Project (a non-profit organization dedicated to the global disclosure of information to aid governments, companies, and investors with managing their environmental impact), “just 100 companies…[are] responsible for 71% of the global GHG emissions that cause global warming since 1998.” If these companies continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at the rate they have been during the 25-year period examined, the global average temperature is expected to rise by up to 4 C, threatening all forms of life on Earth as well as global food production.
State governments are complicit in these detrimental actions by subsidizing and investing in corporations that refuse to lower their emissions or switch to clean energy alternatives. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, governments “have failed to seriously address climate change for decades” and corporations “have obscured the facts and opposed intervention in pursuit of short-term profits.” Although corporations have vowed to limit their carbon emissions, some companies employ greenwashing campaigns and spend millions on lobbying to prevent the passage of climate change mitigation policies. In 2019, the five largest oil and gas companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, spent nearly $200 million on lobbying efforts “to delay, control, and block policies to tackle climate change.”
Since corporations refuse to change their practices to remain profitable, nations worldwide must collectively determine procedures that hold corporations accountable for the substantial amount of greenhouse gasses they emit. There is a range of coercive and non-coercive strategies governments could employ, such as creating a global dialogue regarding climate change, filing lawsuits against companies who contribute to climate change, and directly targeting corporate executives.
Creating a global dialogue regarding climate change is a non-coercive strategy that would allow corporations, climate activists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to work together to find ways for companies to lower their GHG emissions. Stakeholders and investors could also be part of this dialogue to hold companies accountable for their actions. However, this strategy has yielded little to no results thus far since corporations do not have incentives to change their operations, making them unlikely to engage in constructive dialogue with climate activists. Instead, corporations have employed deceitful tactics to avoid any concrete accountability regarding their impacts on climate change and have engaged in greenwashing campaigns to “create an illusion of ecological responsibility.”
Some climate litigators advocate for a more coercive strategy in which victims of climate crises or NGOs file lawsuits against corporations for their contributions to climate change. Since corporations would not want to pay for the damages generated by these lawsuits, incur negative publicity, or lose profits, they would be likely to adhere to restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions under this strategy. Additionally, existing legal frameworks, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), which currently only punishes individuals, could be updated to hold companies accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions.
Executive directors of companies could also be directly targeted by the ICC for their involvement in alleged criminal activities. Although this could potentially be a successful strategy as individuals have much more to lose than the corporations they are part of, it would be difficult for climate scientists and litigators to demonstrate a “causal link or intent” between the actions of these individuals and climate change, thereby failing to punish corporate executives for their actions. Therefore, the most feasible strategy to induce companies to lower their GHG emissions would be the implementation of structural reforms to existing legal systems, such as the ICC.
Even if corporations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over time, the question of whether climate change will or even can be “solved” still remains. Since carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses remain in the atmosphere for about 300 to 1000 years, current and future climate changes are dependent on both current and past GHG emissions.
Thus, even if the world emits zero GHG emissions every year, global warming will continue to occur as it would take “thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to ‘pre-industrial’ levels.” For many centuries, sea levels will continue to rise, surface temperatures will increase, and glaciers and ice sheets will continue to melt. As it seems, the human-caused global warming of the Earth is “essentially irreversible on human timescales.”
Yet, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is still beneficial since it would “lessen the risks of dangerous climate change.” Essentially, it would reduce the frequency and severity of extreme natural disasters, many of which impact Indigenous populations and individuals in nations where access to aid, shelter, and time away from work is not readily available, and improve the quality of human life in the long run. According to research conducted by NASA scientists, reducing CO2 emissions will prevent economic losses and benefit human health by improving air quality. If the world was to reduce emissions over the next fifty years to keep global warming under the Paris Agreement benchmark of 2 C, “4.5 million premature deaths, 1.4 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits, 300 million lost workdays, 1.7 million incidences of dementia, and 440 million tons of crop losses in the United States” would be prevented. These debilitating economic and health effects impact low-income communities, which disproportionately include communities of color, and Indigenous populations across the U.S. who may not have the resources to protect themselves during climate crises and/or often rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Overall, corporations and governments around the world must be held accountable to lower GHG emissions and implement policies that mitigate climate change.