Debate on Environmental Issues

Sustainable capitalism. Is it an oxymoron? Can we find solutions that do not require a complete change of route, or is the risk of extinction too high not to rebel? 

Debate on Environmental Issues Debate on Environmental Issues

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Table of contents

    To analyse the debate arising from these quite existential questions, have a look at the explanation we have put together.

    Climate change overview

    Before we delve into the debates on environmental issues, let’s sum up what we mean by climate change or the climate crisis.At this moment in history, we are witnessing a change in our planet's climate. In particular, the IPCC tells us that there is a 1.1°C rise in temperature and that this is caused by human activity1.

    Human activity shapes the environment primarily through CO2 emissions. CO2 is a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere in high quantities and causes heat to get trapped. Human activities such as burning coal and oil, i.e. fossil fuels, contribute to such emissions. Other actions such as deforestation and pollution through excessive waste also participate in the climate crisis.Global warming causes negative environmental events such as droughts, sea-levels rising, and damage to ecosystems. In turn, these events impact people’s lives, especially in the Global South, and cause displacement.

    Floods in South Asia are examples of climate change-caused environmental emergencies. Over the last year, approximately 12 million people have been displaced in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. A third of Bangladesh was submerged by water. Although these countries experience heavy rain during the monsoon season, such levels of flooding are exceptional and, according to scientists, aggravated by rising temperatures in the region.

    In summary, you must understand that there is now a consensus on the causes of global warming, i.e. human activity.

    What follows is asking whether there is a consensus on how to respond to the consequences of economic growth and capitalist development.

    Common global debates on environmental issues

    The most common debate on the response to Climate Change focuses on the degree to which capitalism can be the solution to the problem.

    States' response to climate change usually focuses on green politics and Modernist Ecology. These politics originate from the idea of sustainable development.

    Sustainable development is a form of development based on the belief that capitalism can be reconciled with the environment. Through policies that mitigate the impact that economic growth has, both technological and political, one could reach sustainable development and a "green capitalism".

    Such politicians develop policies that mitigate the impact of climate change but still believe that a capitalistic, free-market economy is the terrain to find the solution to the Challenge of Climate Change.

    Debates within ecology

    This central debate exploring capitalism's efficiency originates from Ecology discussions. Let's explore the three leading positions within the political ideology of Ecology:

    • Shallow Ecology or Shallow Greens: This branch of Ecology believes that the current growth rate is not sustainable. Nevertheless, as most state politicians do, they think we can continue economically growing while investing in reducing emissions and technical innovations that mitigate climate change.
    • Deep Ecology or Deep Greens: These Ecologists believe in a revolution in how humans and the environment or nature interact. Instead of believing in the centrality and superiority of humans, i.e. anthropocentrism, these thinkers believe that all natural beings are equally valuable. Nature is not seen as a means to human growth and development; instead, humans should sustain the environment.
    • Social Ecology: According to these thinkers, the current climate crisis is also caused by an unjust distribution of resources and unscrupulous private sector interests. Therefore, social ecologists believe that to find solutions to the challenge of climate change, we must also address social injustices.

    Therefore, you now know that the primary debate is born out of questions about capitalism. Can capitalism be the terrain for the solution?

    Debate around Environmental Issues, Steam coming out from manufacturing chimney, StudySmarterFig. 1 CO2 Emissions are the main cause of climate change.

    Capitalism and ecology: are they compatible?

    Let's explore the arguments in favour and the ones against.

    PROS

    CONS

    Those who support a free-market economy and neoliberalism believe in the consumer choice model. The consumer choice model tells us that if people become environmentally conscious, they will ask for a solution to the crisis, and private companies will respond.

    Capitalism is driven by profit. The latter can only be achieved by ignoring part of the costs of a product, in this case, the environmental costs.

    According to them, capitalism is not inevitably “evil” and can become ethical.

    Governments in liberal democracies do not hold enough controls on private corporations and cannot manage to mitigate the impact that these have.

    Governments can manage capitalistic growth to protect the environment through laws and taxes.

    Businesses and private enterprises cannot act in the interests of the environment for fear of losing their profit.

    Neo-Marxism and climate change

    Marxist thought sees capitalism and climate change as correlated in a relationship of causality, historically and systematically. According to Neo-Marxism, climate change is the result of ignoring the actual cost of goods or services and not incorporating such cost into the final price of the goods or services.

    In the case of the environment, it indicates the actual price (let's say CO2 emissions) of a good (let's say petrol) is not incorporated in the final cost of the good (or, in other words, petrol is too cheap for the price the environment is paying). This is how capitalism maximises profit.

    Moreover, historically, climate change results from the intense industrial growth that the earth has seen after the shift from renewable resources (e.g. water) with cyclical flows to non-renewable resources (e.g. coal) with non-cyclical flows.

    North-South debate on environmental issues

    Another main topic of the dispute over solutions to climate change comes from relations between the Global North and Global South.

    Global North and Global South are concepts used to group the countries of the world according to socio-economic and political contexts.

    Global South usually refers to Latina America, Africa, Oceania and parts of Asia, or generally regions outside North America and Europe, excluding Australia and New Zealand.

    We know that CO2 emissions are the leading cause of climate change. Developed states in the Global North were the first to go through industrialisation, producing a higher percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The USA is one of the highest polluting countries if we look at per capita emissions.

    When Global South countries participate in emissions, it is usually for the production of goods consumed in the Global North, such as those of the textile and fashion industries.

    To respond to these problems, we usually talk of common but differentiated responsibilities, which means that the Global North should lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sustain the Global South through financial aid to reduce emissions. Nonetheless, the Global South often responds that it cannot be responsible for past emissions and that the targets should be decided according to current emissions.

    Furthermore, the Global South is impacted by climate change more dramatically. Such a trend in the disparate effects of climate change is often referred to as climate injustice.

    Examples are floods in South Asia, droughts in East Africa, deserts such as the Sahara expanding, islands in the Pacific being submerged due to rising sea levels, and Glaciers melting on the Himalayas.

    Debate around Environmental Issues, Photograph of the Sahara desert, StudySmarterFig. 2 The Sahara desert is expanding as a consequence of climate change

    The animal rights debate

    Another debate that is informing the discussion of solutions to the Challenge of Climate change regards animal rights. Those who believe in animal rights usually condemn Western society for being based on speciesism.

    Speciesism is an attitude towards non-human species of superiority, particularly moral superiority. This leads to a differentiated treatment of species that are not human.

    P. Singer and T. Reagan are two critical thinkers in extending the ethical theory to the animal world. These theorists argue that animals can experience feelings like humans and should have rights. In other words, against anthropocentrism and speciesism, they believe that humans are not superior to animals and that the latter should not be seen as a means to human sustainment.

    In his book Animal Liberation, philosopher Peter Singer sees speciesism as

    a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species2.

    These theories translate into political views that believe that to fight climate change, we must stop consuming animal products and derivatives, or in other words, adhere to veganism. Indeed, the meat industry accounts for 60% of all greenhouse emissions3.

    Animal Rebellion is an animal and climate justice movement that aims to press governments to denounce the meat industry and sponsor plant-based diets. They believe in the necessity of this shift because of animal agriculture's impact on the climate crisis and the extinction of species and ecosystems. The organisation often collaborates with Extinction Rebellion, which also pressures climate change action but does not primarily target the meat industry.

    Animal rights defenders are primarily aligned with Social Ecology and are involved in protests to pressure states into taking action on climate change and social justice.

    Electric cars debate

    In conclusion, another crucial debate is on the efficiency of electric cars.Electric cars can be seen as a technical and solution to CO2 emissions since they do not function on fossil fuels, e.g. petrol.

    For example, in Norway, the use of electric cars is state-subsidised through tax incentives. Following this policy, more than 65% of new cars sold are electric4.

    However, not everyone agrees on the impact that electric cars can have.

    PROS

    CONS

    Electric cars produce fewer emissions.

    Powerful electric cars require heavy batteries that generate higher CO2 emissions during production.

    In the long run, they are cheaper than regular cars because charging stations are cheaper than petrol and diesel, especially in times of crisis in the prices of these fossil fuels, such as the one following the War in Ukraine.

    Batteries are made of rare elements that might not be available in the future in industrial numbers. These elements are extracted through the exploitation of miners in Global South countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Countries such as Norway have a high use of electric cars, which can be achieved globally through tax credits and grants for electric car users.

    Currently, they are unaffordable for most people; hence, we should focus on more impactful solutions such as plant-based diets.

    Debate on Environmental issues - Key takeaways

    • Climate change is caused by human activity.
    • The most significant debate on climate change addresses whether capitalism can be the terrain to solve the challenge of climate change.
    • Shallow, Deep, and Social Ecology debate on the extent to which we can maintain economic growth
    • Those who are pro-capitalist development believe in sustainable development, and private companies will adapt themselves to higher societal and environmental consciousness.
    • Those against capitalism believe that the latter and the environment cannot be reconciled because of capitalism's drive for profit.
    • The Global North participates more significantly in global warming
    • 'Common but differentiated responsibilities' express the need for the Global North to take action and sustain the Global South.
    • Some believe that since the meat industry emits 60% of the total emissions, a plant-based diet is the only solution to the climate crisis.
    • Electric cars might be a solution for CO2 emissions, but their actual sustainability is still debated.

    References

    1. IPCC (2021), 'Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying'.
    2. Singer, P. (1990). Animal liberation. New York, N.Y: New York Review of Books.
    3. The Guardian (2021), 'Meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production, study finds'.
    4. Electreck (2022), 'Norway rolls back EV incentives while boosting walking and cycling'.
    5. Fig. 1 Photo of Industrial Plant ( https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-industrial-plant-3044479/).
    6. Fig. 2 Green Grasses on Sahara Desert ( https://www.pexels.com/photo/green-grasses-on-sahara-desert-1001435/).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Debate on Environmental Issues

    What are major environmental problems?

    The Global South faces the strongest environmental problems, such as floods in South Asia, droughts in East Africa, deserts such as the Sahara expanding, islands in the Pacific being submerged due to rising sea levels, and Glaciers melting on the Himalayas.

    How can the government tackle climate change?

    Governments try to maintain economic growth while investing in reducing emissions and in technical innovations that mitigate climate change. 

    How can CO2 emissions be reduced?

    CO2 can be reduced by substituting fossil fuels with renewable clean resources that do not emit CO2.

    What are animal rights?

    Animal rights are the rights of animals to not be seen as inferior to humans and not as a means of human sustainment. 

    What are current environmental issues being debated?

    Many discuss the efficiency and potential success of electric cars in mitigating climate change. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The current human-caused rise in temperature is of

    The main cause of human-caused climate change is 

    Pro-capitalist ecologists primarily believe in 

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