Last Tuesday, I watched the State of the Union address along with many other Americans. Some of the topics in the address (as well as the topics left out) got me thinking: what sort of role does politics and understanding politics play in environmental protection? Obviously, many laws have been put in place to protect natural resources and the environment. However, “the economy” and “the standard of living” often take priority in politicians’ speeches and policies over “the environment.”
Politics is very important to sustainability. One person, acting by themselves, cannot change this country’s energy over to renewable energy. Even the president needs the cooperation of Congress and the Supreme Court, which in turn need the people’s approval. Even a dictator would need others to help him or her gain power and enforce the new policies. Understanding politics and how your government works is therefore essential to making any major changes.
Too often, I have heard politicians leave environmental arguments out of their campaign debates. I recall that when I watched the 2008 presidential election debates, only a few sentences, at best, were directed to environmental policies of the presidential candidates. During the Republican candidate debates this year, each candidate’s stance on the environment was not really discussed. It is hard for people to make an informed choice when voting for a candidate if such important information as the candidate’s view on the environment is left out. Sustainability and the environment were not addressed very much during the State of the Union, save for a few words.
At one point during the address, President Barack Obama made a remark that seemed to imply that he favored natural gas drilling. Those of you who have been following New York State news may know that one method of obtaining natural gas, hydrofracking, has been controversial recently. Some studies have shown that hydrofracking is damaging to the environment, while the natural gas industry claims that there is very little impact. Obviously, the president does not want to offend industries, especially with the election coming up, but he could have explained his stance on the issue a little more, since it was unclear. He did say that oil “isn’t enough,” and “this country needs an all-out, all of the above strategy that develops every available source of American energy—a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”
As the president pointed out next, fossil fuels have gotten a lot of government-funded research as well as subsidies. If we focused that money towards renewable energy, perhaps it will be easy, and not as expensive as we think, to switch to an energy system that is not in danger of running out. As a quick example, we have a federally funded highway system here in the United States. If that money had gone towards public transportation, many people would probably use public transportation rather than cars. Although there were many issues that the president had to address, it would have been nice to hear whether he meant to direct research funding towards renewable sources of energy and how he planned to implement that.
The government makes many decisions affecting the environment and our lives. Many politicians were trained as lawyers and businessmen, not scientists. You cannot argue with scientific facts like you can with other policies, such as laws. If you deny that gravity exists, you are still going to fall to the ground after you jump in the air. Likewise, if you deny that climate change exists, and keep living with the assumption that your activities will not affect the planet’s climate, eventually you will find out that you are wrong. Politicians need to understand science and other disciplines in order to speak intelligently about them and create policies that reflect how the world really works, not an idealized planet that we can do whatever we like with.