The Environment
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    Candidates' Positions on the Environment

As it is used in political discourse, the term “the environment” refers to the state of nature prior to human involvement and/or interference, and by extension, to the impact of that involvement and interference. Environmentalist concerns generally touch upon at least one of two broad categories of potential consequences arising from human activity: First, moral or aesthetic objection to changing nature as it functions independently of humanity (a notion that carries with it the implicit assumption that humanity is inherently “artificial” and not itself a part of nature), and, secondly and more practically, worry over the depletion of natural resources or the introduction of unusual pollutants into the natural order, with either condition threatening harm to human civilization.

People identifying with the first category have always been a vocal force, with even some of the Founding Fathers of the United States urging conservation of old-growth forests and other natural systems, not out of concern for the consequences of denuding them but in respect for their existence itself. The second category, on the other hand, has not long been a serious issue. Indeed, in the earliest days of the nation – and in colonial times prior – the North American continent was popularly seen as a vast, untamed wilderness, possessed of bountiful natural resources that should be exploited in the course of American expansion. Additionally, a strong tendency existed among early Americans to seek to gradually transform this new land so that it more closely resembled the original European homes from which most of them had emigrated (and it is interesting to note that Europe itself was once a heavily forested continent, since cleared for farmland and living space by human activity).

Quite frankly, for most of the time that Americans (and humanity in general, for that matter) have been collecting and utilizing natural resources, technology was not advanced enough – nor demand high enough – for depletion or pollution to be realistic concerns on a human time scale. This began to change with the widespread burning of fossil fuels, especially coal in the nineteenth century and oil in the twentieth, along with the greatly accelerated logging and mining that was ultimately powered by those fossil fuels. With advanced manufacturing machines in factories spewing tons of noxious gases into the air, and entire forests being leveled for raw materials, humans worried for the first time about the side effects their production efforts might be having on the environment.

In the 1940s, fears began to surface of anthropogenic global cooling. Prior to this time, as far back as the 1920s, there were worries that a new but natural ice age might be beginning, but in the 40s, early and inaccurate understanding of the capabilities of nuclear weapons led some to believe that small-scale testing of fission-based atomic weapons - as was being conducted at the time - could lead to a “nuclear winter” that would drag down global temperatures. By the 1970s, worry over global cooling had reached a fever pitch, with fossil fuel use now also being implicated as a causal agent. Even at that time, however, the greater fear was already reserved for an emerging new theory: Global warming.

Today, though environmentalist concerns still address depletion and general pollution, global warming has risen to become the number one environmental issue discussed in our time. Politically, it is also a source of profound controversy. As such, it is elaborated upon below.

Central Issues

Climate Change
The term “climate change” is a modern-day reference to global warming, which is a scientifically accepted process by which the average temperature within the Earth's atmosphere increases. Global warming has come to be known as climate change in current political and social discourse, primarily as a means of avoiding misunderstanding. Because of the inherent complexities of climatological mechanics, it has long been understood by scientists that any change in average temperatures (in either direction) can play havoc with the global climate as a whole. This means that – for instance – an overall increase might well cause the diversion and concentration of cooler air in certain regions, leading to winter weather of aggravated severity or an unusually mild summer season. Those less well-versed in climate science may erroneously interpret these effects – which are in fact consistent with the theory of global warming – as evidence that the planet's average temperature must not in fact be increasing. Hence, it has been found clearer in most cases to use the newer term: Climate change.

Climate change has the potential to devastate human civilization. Powerful storms such as hurricanes in the summer and blizzards in winter are predicted to increase in both frequency and severity as a consequence of the phenomenon, temperature changes around the world risk reducing arable farmland and threatening famine, and warming in the polar regions risks melting the Earth's ice caps and bringing about coastal flooding.

According to scientific measurements, the average surface temperature of Earth is increasing. From the year 1860 to 2016, with significant peaks and valleys interspersed, temperatures have risen nearly one full degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). A pause in the warming trend was observed starting around 2000, but as of 2014 (which was itself the warmest single year on record), temperatures have started climbing again.

One of the most bitter controversies concerning climate change is whether it is anthropogenic – that is, caused by human activity – or merely the result of a natural cycle. Human civilization is suspected as the culprit for this phenomenon because of the fact that carbon dioxide (C02) gas is chemically dipolar, causing it to absorb surface heat that might otherwise escape into space and reflect it back, leading to a “greenhouse effect” and thus to global warming. Unfortunately, human industry adds considerable CO2 gas to the atmosphere, chiefly through the burning of fossil fuels. Most climate scientists believe that the warming currently being experienced on Earth is at least largely the result of human activity.

Environmentalists and other socially liberal individuals typically consider climate change to be one of the most serious issues facing American (and global) society today. They reference the majority opinion among scientists that the planet's warming is due to human activity, and they call for aggressive reductions in fossil fuel use and the transition to a renewable energy economy. In extreme cases, they are apt to accuse their political opponents of being “climate change deniers”, in derogatory reference to “holocaust deniers” who believe the Nazi holocaust during World War II is a myth or has been exaggerated.

Social conservatives usually seek to mitigate these concerns. They worry about the economic impact of severely reducing industrial carbon emissions and caution that such impact must be considered and weighed against the cost of inaction. They question whether the United States has the power to address climate change at all, raising concerns that American action might have little effect without the cooperation of emerging economies such as China and India, which have expressed greater interest in robust expansion than environmental protection. In what is generally viewed as an extreme position, some conservatives reject the notion that the planet is warming at all or that the warming is caused by (and thus within the corrective power of) human civilization. These people typically dismiss the opinions of scientists, sometimes claiming the consensus is part of a far-reaching conspiracy to achieve specific political ends.

Cap and Trade
Cap and trade, sometimes also called “emissions trading”, is one of the more controversial solutions proposed to the industrial pollution (and therefore, climate change) problem. Generally favored by environmentalists, it refers to a broad range of systems in which the government would impose legally-enforced limits on the amounts of specific types of pollutants emitted by a given private business, but issuing each business a certain number of pollution “credits” entitling them to those emissions. Companies wishing to exceed their allotment of pollution would be free to purchase credits from firms that were short of their limit. The specifics of the credits system, and any taxes that may be used to support the program, are dependent upon the exact cap and trade proposal under discussion.

Proponents of cap and trade argue that it would encourage more sparingly polluting (or “green”) businesses by giving them the potential for increased profits, while providing an equivalent financial disincentive to heavier polluters, the ultimate effect being to allow the free market to guide itself toward what is seen as more environmentally responsible operations.

Opponents of the idea are usually of a social conservative bent, and counter that any form of cap and trade represents a counterproductive – and perhaps unconstitutional – intrusion by government into the affairs of private business. They also often point out the potential for abuse or corruption in specific cap and trade proposals, saying the system would not even be effective in reducing industrial emissions.

Candidates' Positions on the Environment

Hillary Clinton
Jill Stein
Donald Trump


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