ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES WILL NEVER BE RESOLVED
October 13, 2013
What are the most contentious environmental issues people ask you questions
about and which ones cause the most intense disagreement?
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.
On which environmental topics have you found people least willing to
The following are environmental issues on which some people take intractable
positions and will not be swayed, regardless.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
you have an environmental question or comment, email