Beijing recently declared its first “red alert” due to dangerous levels of air pollution. The country suffers from excessive and unregulated pollution as a sacrifice for increased industrial productivity and economic growth. This red alert system comes two years after China developed an emergency plan to combat its pollution—although looking at the current pollution levels, it seems like this system came a bit too late.
This sort of delayed reaction to environmental problems—and closely related socioeconomic problems—is a familiar facet of our globalized world. Now in its second week, the 2015 United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference is a prime example.
According to famed American environmentalist Bill McKibben, the conference in Paris “isn’t the game—it’s the scoreboard.” No one seems to expect the score to be particularly high, however, and the reason is clear: Historical failures of previous climate conferences aside, the draft agreement coming out of Paris is simply not good enough.
The United States is leading a new effort in Paris that will allow countries to voluntarily set their own carbon limits. Though this does put pressure on many nations, there will be no mandatory international law. The vague, arbitrary and already too-high two degree Celsius goal for a global rise will almost certainly be surpassed—even with a widespread shift to green energy—simply because of the momentum of past pollution alone. With oil and gas companies, automotive companies and other big polluters lobbying at the conference, the pressure is not high enough.
The thick smog in Beijing provides just one example—albeit a highly visual one—of the environmental and social impact of allowing corporate factories to pollute the world without consequence. Setting optional or voluntary limits and being soft on fossil fuel companies will not prevent corporate greed from taking advantage of natural capital and making cities unlivable in the process.
Even if Americans can’t control what China and other environmentally destructive nations do, change starts at home. By talking to lawmakers and working to set stricter limits on carbon at the city, state and national levels, divesting from fossil fuels and investing in green energy, Americans can avoid worst-case scenarios regarding climate change and prevent a Beijing situation from happening here.