Climate Change

Jefferson experts discuss some of the most pressing issues.

Thomas Jefferson University is a non-partisan organization and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office. Consistent with the university’s educational mission and in the spirit of community engagement, we present the views of individuals in this publication. The views are not the views of Thomas Jefferson University or Jefferson Health. 

In a few short weeks, people will have their chance to go to the polls and vote for president, as well as state and federal elective offices, if they haven’t done so already. As part of the run-up to Election Day, The Nexus has taken the results of a campus poll seeking information to pinpoint the most important issues within the Jefferson family.

Among the top issues cited was the impact that climate change will have locally and globally, and it reaches well beyond the race for president.

Several experts from the Jefferson community weighed in with their thoughts when asked this open-ended question: What do you think are the most important issues related to climate change that voters should consider before voting in the November election?

Rob Fleming, Director of the Sustainable Design Program:

First off, climate change is not a long off threat sometime in the future. The effects of climate change are accelerating and multiplying, which leads to more disasters with bigger impacts. The California wildfires and repeated hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico are examples.

Clearly, COVID-19 is an immediate threat and needs all of our attention, but how we vote can lay the groundwork for addressing climate change.

Having said all that, the most important issues related to climate change that voters should consider relate directly to empathy.

Empathy is the key characteristic that drives the motivation to take action against a threat that may not be affecting us directly. How can we make the hard decisions today that will benefit people who live far away from us or benefit people in future generations? That’s the essential role of government—not to spur the economy, but to provide stewardship for our citizens.

When voting, I look at the candidates’ character to determine their level of empathy and to their proposed policies which reflect the responsibilities of government. Which candidate supports our participation in the globally agreed-upon Paris Climate Accord, and which candidate can make policies that benefit our society in the long term like incentivizing CO2 technologies like solar and wind power?

Jeff Klemens, Professor of Biology:

Voters should consider that climate change is the kind of problem that doesn’t favor a quick fix. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that a solution is just over the horizon, but the fact is that even if we go to zero emissions tomorrow, the carbon we emit today will be kicking around in the atmosphere for the rest of our lives.

Likewise, every year that we delay action, the larger the backlog that eventually has to be dealt with. As more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, the policy choices get more and more extreme, as does the probability of severe social and economic disruption.

A fix isn’t on the ballot, but the choice between doing something and doing nothing is still an important one.

Another thing that voters should consider is that eventually the world is going to be running off of renewables, in one form or another. It’s hard for voters to think 50 years ahead, but it’s important to ask where we want the economic and technological leadership for the post-fossil-fuel era to come from.

Right now, the U.S. isn’t leading the world in green technology in the same way that we have led in the past. We aren’t the ones deploying the most innovative solutions and figuring out how to scale them up even though we possess the knowledge and the resources to do so. So, there’s opportunity there.

The longer we wait to get started with the real work, the harder it will be to achieve. –Jeff Klemens

Finally, I think that as we move forward, we will see climate change as yet another driver of inequality. As with any other environmental problem, vulnerable populations will feel the effects first. The poor and the elderly are at risk when temperatures increase in urban environments. Farmers, loggers and agricultural workers stand to lose their livelihoods when climate is changing faster than organisms and industries can adapt.

To achieve climate policy that has any chance of broad support, there must be recognition that most people will experience both climate change and climate change policy as a series of economic disruptions.

We need leaders who can see the economy and the environment as being part of a highly interconnected system. We need them to offer long-term solutions to the climate crisis while committing to support individuals so that they can emerge from those disruptions economically whole and with their dignity and way of life intact.

Any way you look at it, it will be a tough needle to thread, but the longer we wait to get started with the real work, the harder it will be to achieve.

Cathy Rusinko, Professor of Management:

As an academic faculty member who’s perhaps a little more aware of the short- and long-run individual and societal benefits from higher education, I hope that voters consider the importance of higher education—and the importance of financial accessibility of higher education—as a necessary condition as we address climate change and related issues.

Jefferson, along with many other colleges and universities, has integrated climate-change issues into several programs and courses across the curriculum. However, to learn about these issues and address them, students—who are our future leaders and problem-solvers—must be able to afford tuition and other fees.

We tend to hear a lot about rising tuition rates over the past decade. Tuition has become unaffordable for many families and students and/or has forced them to borrow heavily to attend college.

For example, during the decade from 2007-08 to 2017-18, published tuition prices rose by an average of 2.4 percent annually at private nonprofit four-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation, according to Inside Higher Ed. They rose by 3.2 percent annually at public four-year institutions and by 2.8 percent at public two-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation.

Voters must demand that the model for government support of higher education be revisited and rejuvenated to better serve citizens and society in the 21st century.  –Cathy Rusinko

Equally importantly, we must be aware of the significant decreases in government support of higher education over that same period. For example, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, during that same period (2008-17), per-student funding in Pennsylvania fell by over 30 percent, after adjusting for inflation. These cuts have been responsible for a sizable share of tuition increases.

Voters who care about the long-run sustainability of the planet, our society and our economy must demand that legislators better support students and families who are seeking higher education to make higher education affordable.

Likewise, voters must demand that the model for government support of higher education be revisited and rejuvenated to better serve citizens and society in the 21st century.

Dr. Anne Bower, Professor of Biology; Biology Students Irene Cooper, Fatoumata Diarra and Tyler Savage; and Biopsychology Student Maya Dinero:

During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, both candidates provided widely different views and plans to address climate change.

Voters need to be informed citizens and educate themselves on the scientific facts.

Climate change has impacted Philadelphia, making it wetter, snowier and hotter, increasing flooding, changing growing seasons, increasing frequency and intensity of storm events, increasing heat-related deaths, and impacting budgets at every level.

There are options to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but they all require the coordinated efforts of governments, businesses and individuals now.

Your vote matters. It impacts funding for and decisions about healthcare, food, jobs, education, roads, homes and your communities.

Having a clear idea of what each candidate proposes to do about climate change may be helpful in your voting decision.

In the last debate, President Trump said that clean air and water were of great importance to him, but he felt the role of climate change in the recent natural disasters was overstated.

During his presidency, he has made changes to existing environmental policy, pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement and cutting the NASA Climate Monitoring Program. He highlighted in the debate that the economy was his chief priority, with the underlying implication that programs to mitigate climate change were deleterious to the economy.

General anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from climate change impact influence mental health as well. –Dr. Anne Bower

In contrast, former Vice President Biden has outlined a detailed plan, targeting clean energy and environmental justice as the challenges he plans to address. Specifically, he aspires to reach entirely clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050 through incentives, investment and enforcement mechanisms. He also wants to target environmental injustice by establishing protections against the environmental pollution that disproportionately affect minorities and those living in poverty.

Climate change has direct and indirect effects on our health. High temperatures are a direct contributor to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, premature death, and water- and foodborne illnesses.

Extreme heat and smoke from wildfires (which contain particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other ozone precursors) directly impact hospitalization for respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

Increasing sea levels and more frequent extreme weather have ruined homes and destroyed essential services, such as medical facilities.

Due to climate change, the transmission seasons for vector-borne diseases—such as malaria, Lyme and plague—are lengthened. Indirect effects of climate change include threats to mental health, and food and water security and safety. Medication taken by those with severe mental illness impacts their temperature regulation, and high temperatures put them at risk of hyperthermia.

General anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from climate change impact influence mental health as well. Communities of color, low-income communities, seniors, children and people with underlying health issues are disproportionately affected by climate change.

Selecting the best candidate to vote for in the next presidential election is crucial for not only the future but for today. –Dr. Anne Bower

A few direct examples are severe droughts, which limit water availability for crops and livestock; increased insect spawnings; high summer heat linked to forest fires; disruption of pollinators; and dormancy breaks detrimental to fruiting of plants and public health. Adaptation has become the norm, but policy created by local and federal governments can help ameliorate these destructive effects on our climate, economy and health.

Deforestation is a serious issue, impacting multiple species of life and resulting in a loss of natural carbon storage. During the recent presidential debate when asked about the science behind climate change, President Trump broadly spoke about the forest floor being covered with dead trees making it easy for a cigarette to ignite a fire. That is true, but more importantly, it’s critical to ask why the forest is so dry in the first place.

The rate at which forests are being destroyed and the amount of carbon being produced is becoming severely detrimental to all life on Earth. For example, the Climate Clock is an online ticker that counts down the time we have before ecological collapse.

As things stand, we have roughly 7 years and 3 months before Earth’s ecosystems will no longer function. Knowing this, selecting the best candidate to vote for in the next presidential election is crucial for not only the future but for today.

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Science and Technology