Place-Based Environmentalism and Global Warming: Conceptual Contradictions of American Environmentalism

By Smith, Daniel Somers | Ethics & International Affairs, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Place-Based Environmentalism and Global Warming: Conceptual Contradictions of American Environmentalism


Smith, Daniel Somers, Ethics & International Affairs


Until recently, the history of environmentalism was primarily a history of attention to place. (1) In the United States, environmentalists have gotten rather good at protecting and managing particular places such as mountains, forests, and watersheds and specific resources such as trees, soil, wildlife, air, and water. Environmentalism has become an enormously popular social movement, with, by some measures, more than 80 percent of Americans considering themselves environmentalists. (2) Thousands of organizations, ranging from local volunteer groups to national nonprofits, address issues as diverse as open space, air and water pollution, biological diversity, environmental justice, and environmental effects on human health. The successes of this movement have been striking. Our National Parks, National Forests, and wilderness areas are touted as models for the world and are well complemented by state, municipal, and private protected areas. The Endangered Species Act successfully resolves many conflicts between rare creatures and development. Rivers have been cleaned up, and once-spurned urban waterfronts now draw real estate and tourism development. Americans drink cleaner water and breathe cleaner air than much of the rest of the world, and attempts to weaken regulatory frameworks are consistently met with public disapproval.

It has become all too clear, however, that environmental protection requires more than protection of particular places: Concerns about the environment, like so many others, have "gone global." No issue exemplifies this shift quite so well as global warming. Because of the release of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases"--most notably carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels--the earth's climate is gradually becoming warmer. (3) The latest climate models suggest that average temperatures, both globally and in North America, are likely to rise between three and ten degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. (4) This is a very rapid rate of change, one to which neither human nor natural systems can easily adapt. It seems increasingly likely that climate change will both exacerbate existing environmental stresses and create entirely new problems. The most likely negative changes include degradation of ecosystems; accelerating loss of biological diversity; disruption and instability of agriculture; rising sea level; more severe weather events like hurricanes, drought, and flooding; worse air pollution (especially ground-level ozone, which is formed during high daytime temperatures); and the spread of certain diseases like malaria and cholera. (5) Much uncertainty remains about these projections, and there are also possible benefits, such as greater agricultural productivity at high latitudes. But the potential for negative effects is very large.

Despite its past successes, the domestic environmental movement has not yet achieved significant progress on climate change, even though scientists have been ringing alarm bells for at least twenty years. (6) The implications of this neglect are significant, as several basic and widely accepted ethical principles suggest that the citizens of the United States bear a special responsibility for addressing this situation. (7) Although the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world's population, its citizens produce roughly a quarter of the carbon emissions each year--making Americans the largest contributors per capita of any major industrialized nation--and there is little indication that this will change soon. In terms of liability for harm (the principle of "polluter pays"), the responsibility of the United States is therefore significant. Along with other developed countries, the United States has reaped a disproportionate benefit from more than one hundred years of entirely unregulated use of fossil fuels, and it is unlikely that currently industrializing countries will be permitted to enjoy similar advantages.

Distribution of the burdens of global warming is also likely to be inequitable.

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Place-Based Environmentalism and Global Warming: Conceptual Contradictions of American Environmentalism
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