Ignoring secondary consequences: the case of climate change
Global warming is a term we hear batted around, to the point that it has become almost trite, but this is an issue vitally important to discuss on the political scene. The issues at the center of the debate tend to be about whether or not climate change is actually occurring and, secondly, if we accept that climate change is occurring, whether human beings and human societies are really affecting the changes in weather patterns and general temperature increases that have taken place over the last several decades. Is the planet in fact getting warmer? The majority of scientists tell us it undoubtedly is. If it is, is this happening because of human societies? Again, scientists overwhelmingly tell us this is the case. Our cars, factories, farming practices and everyday living could all use serious alterations. However, there are social problems associated with global warming or climate change – both directly and indirectly – that we often ignore in lieu of a focus on the larger and, in many ways, more confusing and less easily addressable problems like climate change overall. My point here is not to argue that one perspective is more important than the other, but rather that there are benefits of addressing smaller problems, especially when they affect people’s health and well-being.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the debate over abortion stalemating health care reform. While a preliminary health care bill is now alive and will likely remain well long enough to at least make some headway, there is a similarity between the way in which that bill was stalled and even almost blocked several times and our getting bogged down in the generally partisan (conservative/liberal) arguments about global warming. We often, both intentionally and unintentionally use issues to blot out others . In this case, one of the major problems here is that we really miss some of the other important issues linked to larger discussions about global warming. Pollution, for instance is a key player in global warming/climate change but also an issue that poses secondary consequences of its own – and they need our attention. Whether or not global warming is occurring – and there is a wealth of evidence that it is – there is far less argument that pollution and poor air quality are certainly affecting global citizens. All one needs to do is look at the number of people diagnosed with asthma in cities to know that poor air quality is not good for us. How many city-dwellers have lung cancer? The list of illnesses due to poor water quality around the globe is long.
Once again, we can see how political decisions become mired in squabbles – even if the issue over which the squabbling occurs is an important one (such as abortion or global warming), it still detracts from dealing with some of the serious social problems such as the physical health of citizens around the world or the need for health care for those who do not currently have it or who are without adequate care. This is a reminder that many social problems are hidden behind larger political battles and often go overlooked when we focus only on the primary problems, which may be more politically “hot” topics and actually less easily solved. One possible avenue of thought here is that a ground-up approach to informing the public and creating social policy to deal with issues such as air pollution and health problems could be potentially fruitful. Because the media has such a central role in discussions about global warming, one possible avenue for more manageable discussion would be increasing investigations into issues such as the consequences of air and water pollution – what we might call more tangible issues.