Author: Donovan Dennis
President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Alaska has been condemned by critics as a media stunt, a cover-up to assuage Alaskans for setting aside federally-protected land as wildlife reserve and an empty-suit effort to contribute sound bites on an issue without enacting substantive policy change. But critics fail to see that Obama’s tour of Alaska transcended politics; at its core, the president’s trip was a humanitarian mission, an emotive plea to call America’s attention to those already impacted by climate change in order to spur greater action on this increasingly devastating crisis.
We, as a nation, have not responded well to figures and statistics. Climate scientists and policymakers regularly produce staggering temperature projections as more accurate data is made available. Yet America still pollutes. Congress has failed to enact meaningful legislation regarding greenhouse gas emissions and elected leaders have banned the term “climate change” from state government, citing pseudo-science as fact. But most appallingly, Americans adopted the privilege of having the option to believe in climate change.
Global warming is a crime against the world’s poorest, wreaking havoc across Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and parts of Africa. It will disproportionately impact those countries which can afford it the least. These regions will not be able to recover from climate change until the agencies and nations with sufficient resources choose to offer assistance.
During his Alaskan sojourn, Obama visited with Native Alaskan leaders, danced Yup’ik dances with middle-school students and hiked to Exit Glacier, with the global media clinging to his every move. Intentionally or not, he put a human face on the impact of climate change in the United States.
Alaskans, and especially Native Alaskans, are already experiencing the impacts of global warming firsthand. Salmon run earlier in the season while trees and other native plant species move north as temperatures rise, causing extensive habitat loss in South-Central and Southeastern Alaska. Melting permafrost near and above the Arctic Circle threatens to permanently impact Native Alaskan communities who have inhabited the area for centuries.
And the glaciers are melting. The glaciers are melting so fast, ice loss in Alaska from 2005 to 2010 equaled one-third the losses of the entire Greenland ice sheet, twenty times larger than the area covered by Alaskan glaciers. Obama’s visit put faces to these issues, asking us to think twice before driving our car or not recycling our soda bottles. His call for empathy asks us to change our habits and mindsets toward environmental issues and permanently alter our lifestyles.
Responding to climate change should not be isolated to a small subset of the population progressive enough to act on this issue. Every American who denounces corporations for disproportionately high executive salaries and tax evasion should too admonish the oil and coal companies for exploiting the earth and waging a war against the global poor, threatening not just their livelihoods, but also their cultures, backgrounds and the very land underneath their homes. Intent on maintaining our privilege, American polluters are the 1 percent unabashedly continuing unsustainable lifestyles while the other 99 pleads for help.
To truly re-route our current trajectory, we must embody sustainability not just as one way of life, but as the only way of life, applicable to all environmental issues. Occidental and its student body, as a source of intelligent thought and emerging leaders, cannot continue its bourgeois “business-as-usual” policy on campus-wide sustainability. In a year centered on this theme, it is time Occidental finally takes a leading role in the community. This starts with its students.
We must enact the changes we wish to see, reducing our use, reusing our material waste and recycling the rest. It is shameful that a college and a student body that claims to pride itself on progressive thought and enlightened ideals continues to perpetuate the division between the wealthy and the disadvantaged through the misuse of resources, especially water. Our green lawns stand as a beacon to all visitors, declaring that we are hypocritical and ignorant of one of the most severe environmental crises Los Angeles and the Southwestern United States has ever seen.
Let us start our substantive overhaul by browning the lawns and planting drought-tolerant landscaping and continue by reducing food waste, weaning ourselves off plastic containers and walking, not driving, to York Boulevard. Though they are unique and effective, it is time we stop using our solar panels and the new water-catching front entrance as excuses for avoiding sustainable practices in other areas on campus.
Climate change is not a belief, it is not a doctrine and it is certainly not an isolated issue.
“This is not simply a danger to be avoided; this is an opportunity to be seized,” Obama said in an address to the GLACIER Conference. “But we have to keep going.”
The way we as students, as a college and as a country approach this challenge reflects our compassion for humanity both locally and globally. It speaks not only to who we are as individuals, but also to our values as a community, and our behavior going forward will determine whether we recognize the impact of our actions, are ignorant of their effects or — worst of all — that we simply do not care.
Donovan Dennis is a senior geology major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @donovan_dennis.
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