Former congressman Beto O’Rourke visited the Columbia University campus on Monday, February 4th, for a Town Hall with Columbia College students. O’Rourke, a CC alumnus (class of ’95), addressed students’ questions ranging from a wall at the Mexican border and relations with Israel, to climate change.
A sustainable development major at CC asked O’Rourke the following:
I’d love to hear your thoughts about how climate change can move beyond a partisan issue. I’m sure many of my classmates would agree, we get really tired of hearing “it’s your problem now, it’s the younger generations’ problem now.” As you’ve mentioned many times, it’s pressing and dire, so I implore you to let us know how you plan to make this an issue that’s at the forefront of your work, whether or not you run for a 2020 office.
O’Rourke answered that, in order to really effect change on this issue, we must be able to tell the story in a way that everyone understands and relates to. He referenced a 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine about one of the major bipartisan breakthroughs in environmental policy, the effective banning of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by the Reagan administration. In 1987, Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
O’Rourke pointed out that this ozone “hole” was easy for people to picture. It was easy for people to imagine radiation coming through and causing skin cancer, cataracts, and other health problems in themselves and their children. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, could see that the ban on CFCs was necessary to protect their families’ health. This made it easier to successfully finalize the protocol and get the Republican president’s signature—despite pushback from chemical corporations.
The major challenge we have been facing when it comes to the storytelling around climate change, said O’Rourke, is that people think the consequences of climate change might happen far enough in the future that it doesn’t matter, or that it won’t affect them or their families. “There’s a discount, economically and politically, on anything that’s decades down the road,” he pointed out.
But in the past few years, natural disasters like Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, and the wildfires in California, are getting worse. O’Rourke referenced a member of the Earth Institute faculty, atmospheric scientist and professor Adam Sobel, saying, “Adam Sobel from Columbia University has told us that there will be more Harveys. They will be more intense, more frequent, dump more rain, kill more people. I don’t know how you get any more immediate than that.”
O’Rourke also stressed the importance of looking at the problem from an economic point of view. He pointed out that we will have to spend billions of dollars on issues like keeping our coastlines safe, instead of, for instance, making tuition affordable for anyone who gets into college. “Whatever it is that we want to do, we’ll no longer have the capital or the resources to achieve it,” O’Rourke warned. “We’ve squandered the future.”
But there’s still some hope, he added, turning towards the Green New Deal. This deal, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Senator Ed Markey (MA), is an ambitious solution to the problem of climate change. It focuses on a 100% transition to renewable energy within 12 years and widespread job creation in the renewable energy sector. “Is it feasible? Technically, logistically—yes,” he said, confidently. “Politically? I don’t know. That’s up to all of us, right?”
To achieve this goal, he said, requires political pressure. “That’s the only way any change of any significance has ever happened in this country. So we’ve all got to force it upon ourselves and those who represent us.” By way of example, he pointed out that pressure from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is the reason we are all talking about the Green New Deal. Maintaining this pressure is critical, and the next election—to any office, whether City Council or President—“has to be decided and defined in terms of climate.”
O’Rourke posed open questions to the audience, asking whether our democracy is able to meet this kind of challenge. “Can we galvanize the necessary resources? Can we organize the technical capacity and technological opportunity around this singular goal? I don’t know—let’s find out. Let’s work on this together.”
As a conclusion, O’Rourke called back to his opening point about storytelling: “I know we can do it, it’s just politically can we tell the story that’s compelling enough to bring everyone to the table?”
Let’s try, together.