by Whit Gibbons

October 13, 2013

Q: What are the most contentious environmental issues people ask you questions about and which ones cause the most intense disagreement?

A: Many environmental topics can create high levels of passion and polarization among readers, provoking letters to the editor either challenging or supporting a particular position. Certain environmental issues are comparable to religion and politics in generating a startling degree of fervor. Some individuals take intransigent positions that are so extreme that neither compromise nor neutrality is acceptable to them.

Q: On which environmental topics have you found people least willing to compromise?

A: The following are environmental issues on which some people take intractable positions and will not be swayed, regardless.

1. Climate change/global warming. Climate change is one of the most polarizing issues of our times, and the suite of agendas for being pro or con are numerous and varied. Virtually all ecologists, geologists, modelers, and meteorologists worldwide accept as fact that the earth has warmed and cooled measurably at various times during the past 4 billion years and that climates continually change on a global scale. Debate about and challenges to such claims revolve around whether the changes over the past century or so are appreciably different from historical changes. But the most critical point of contention is whether the causes of climate change, assuming such causes are valid, are man-made (carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels) and whether global or national controls should be put in place to limit them.

My position is that if humans are polluting the atmosphere to a level that global temperatures are changing, we should change our behavior. However, I am also a realist and I recognize that this will not happen voluntarily because of the "tragedy of the commons." The concept, addressed by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, highlights situations in which certain individuals are rewarded for overconsumption whereas the group is penalized when a resource is not sustainable or is itself broadly detrimental. If global climate change is being caused by human activities, it would be in society's best interest for everyone to be conservative in their use of fossil fuels. However, human nature being what it is, some individuals will not conform to change for the greater good as long as they receive personal benefits and minimal discomfort compared to the rest of society. No simple solution is forthcoming.

2. Radiation and nuclear reactors. The positions taken about radiation with regard to politics, human health, the environment, and commerce reach emotional levels that rival those about climate change. Nuclear power reactors are considered by many scientists to be the only long-term sustainable source of energy on the planet that can maintain the generation of electricity at levels civilization has become accustomed to. Anti-nuclear forces argue that all activities that could result in large-scale proliferation of radioactivity in the environment should be terminated. Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan serve as cornerstones for such arguments.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry that profits from oil, coal, and natural gas would be big losers if nuclear energy became the coin of the realm. So, one question to add to the mix in cost-benefit arguments about nuclear reactors is, How do costs to the environment and human health from the use of oil, coal, and other carbon-based products compare to that from man-made radiation sources? Again, no simple solution is forthcoming.

My top two contenders for environmental discord will not be everybody's; many others are certainly out there. The use of herbicides and pesticides, animal rights, hunting for sport, prescribed burning of forests, endangered species legislation, and whether people should let house cats roam outside all have environmental implications. And any can result in emotion-packed arguments. Some people will argue vehemently that I have not picked the right two issues to lead the list, thus supporting my earlier assertion that many environmental topics can create high levels of passion and polarization.

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