Climate Change, Climate Justice

April Trotter, Research Unplugged intern
April 30, 2007

"We can't all have the things we want and grow to a population of nine billion and continue to survive," Nancy Tuana warned.

six panelists sit on stage discussing climate change in front of crowd
Greg Peterson

Panelists discuss climate change.

Tuana, Penn State professor of philosophy and director of the Rock Ethics Institute, spoke last Wednesday evening as part of a panel discussion titled "Climate Change, Climate Justice," a collaborative event sponsored by WPSU's Common Ground Lobby Talks, Penn State's Rock Ethics Institute, and Research Unplugged. An audience of over 100 people gathered in the lobby of the Outreach Building in University Park to take part in an examination of the ethical, religious, and social justice implications of climate change.

In addition to Tuana, the panel—moderated by WPSU's Patty Satalia—included Richard Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State and a lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report; Joy Bergey, global warming outreach coordinator for the environmental group, PennFuture; Jeff Schmidt, senior director of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter; and Robert McKinstry, Goddard Chair in forestry and environmental resources conservation in Penn State's School of Forest Resources.

"What did you come out in the rain tonight to learn?" Satalia asked the audience at the program's opening. One man, from Austria, said he came to "see what America is doing to contribute to the global effort." Another said he wanted to "see if there is any hope for my grandchildren and their children," while another audience member said that she wanted to know "how climate change was going to affect animals such as the polar bears."

The panelists addressed these concerns and others. To set the stage, a short film was presented in which Penn State geoscientists, meteorologists, and geographers outlined the current scientific consensus on global warming, explaining lines of evidence pointing to a warming trend which, by the end of this century, will likely cause temperatures to rise between four and seven degrees Fahrenheit. Such an increase would melt ice caps and swell ocean levels, endangering coastal areas in Florida, Louisiana, and California within the United States, and threatening to completely engulf poor, heavily populated coastal countries such as Bangladesh, potentially displacing tens of millions of people.

"We see that humans are changing the air's composition," Alley noted at the film's conclusion. "The science is solid. Now it is back to the people and policy makers to decide what to do."

"What can we do as individuals to minimize the effects of global warming?" asked one audience member. The panel offered several suggestions such as switching to fluorescent light bulbs, eating lower on the food chain, riding bikes rather than driving cars, and substituting wind and solar power for oil.

McKinstry added, "We need cooperation from the national, state, and local government to solve the problems associated with climate change." He also noted that all sectors of the economy—transportation, forestry, waste management—need to discuss options.

"If you start on a smaller scale—in your community—you can create a political domino effect," Schmidt said, citing the successful implementation of the "Cool Cities Campaign," an initiative to promote innovative energy solutions by local governments that has caught on in over 500 American cities. The campaign works to encourage the construction of energy-efficient buildings, the employment of hybrid cars for city fleets, and the use of green energy providers for municipal needs. As an example of how energy-efficiency can save money, Schmidt cited the city of York—one of eight Pennsylvania cities participating in the campaign—for having recently switched to LED- powered traffic lights, a move that will save the city $70,000 annually.

Although some of the largest energy consumers within Pennsylvania have taken steps toward using renewable energy resources, the panelists made it clear that Pennsylvania is one of the nation's—and, in fact, the world's—top offenders when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Largely because of the Commonwealth's dependency on coal, Bergey said, Pennsylvania is the third largest generator of emissions, behind only Texas and California, states with much higher populations. "Pennsylvania emits more waste than 150 developing countries combined, creating one percent of the world's total emissions," she noted.

In response to an audience member's comment that making energy-efficient changes in the home remains, for many people, an expensive luxury, McKinstry said that the average citizen may soon enjoy many of the same tax breaks given to companies that choose to be energy-efficient. He noted that bills proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature would give $100 tax credits for upgrading to energy-efficient appliances (microwaves, refrigerators, and washer/dryers with an "energy star" logo); $500 credits for purchasing hybrid cars; and half of the installation costs for solar panels on homes (up to $15,000). Panelists urged audience members to contact their state representatives and push for passage of these bills.

Pennsylvania's Clean Energy bill, signed into law by Governor Rendell in 2004, requires that by the year 2020, 18 percent of energy used in the state be harvested from renewable and alternative sources such as solar, wind, biomass, and coal waste.

Schmidt added, "We're aiming for an 80 percent reduction by 2050. But it's easier to swallow if we look at it as a two percent decrease per year. I think we can make it."

shot of entire crowd and panel from above
Greg Peterson

Community members gathered in the lobby of the Outreach Building to participate in the conversation.

Bergey spoke of her work with interfaith religious groups concerned about climate change. "The Bible tells us that we should seek justice and walk humbly and practice kindness," she noted. "And we are not on the path to justice. We are hurting people, and we know we are hurting people, and we aren't changing our ways. Evangelicals see this as a moral issue because it will first and foremost affect the poor—those least able to help themselves—and as Christians, we are taught to help them."

Developed countries "have the greatest influence on climate change," Tuana added, citing that although the United States accounts for just five percent of the world's population, it is responsible for 22 percent of its greenhouse-gas emissions.

At the policy level, options for reducing our carbon footprint are wide-ranging, and some are hotly contested. "Nuclear energy has to be part of the puzzle if we want to get emissions down to where we need them to be," McKinstry noted. Biofuels are another area of exploration. "We can't afford to abandon any CO2-saving measure," McKinstry said. "There is no silver bullet solution. It's more like a Chinese menu. We need to choose ten different options from each of five different columns."

"We need to continue to develop options," concurred Alley. "Then, once the options are developed, we need to have a discussion about what to do with them."

One common theme emerged during the evening: The need to act locally to influence national policy and create plausible alternatives. "There is hope, but we need political help," Bergey said.

Added Tuana, in her closing statement: "Live and vote as if life depends on it."

Nancy Tuana, Ph.D. is professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and director of the Rock Ethics Institute; Richard Alley, Ph.D., is Evan Pugh professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and associate professor of Penn State's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute; Joy Bergey is global warming outreach coordinator for PennFuture; Jeff Schmidt is senior director of Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter; Robert McKinstry, J.D., is Goddard Chair in forestry and environmental resources conservation in Penn State's School of Forest Resources;

Last Updated May 19, 2016