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A Cool Responsibility

Froylan Sifuentes

Many of us come to MIT with visions of making the world a better place — but then the pressure of diverse activities, p-sets, and exams become the focus of life instead, inducing us to leave such visions behind. But it’s not too late to follow your dreams. Shouldn’t we all have the time to work on something that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than that part of us that works to secure our financial future?

As a country we have a responsibility to the world to reduce our emissions through alternative energy, energy conservation, and green building technologies. We at MIT are in a unique position to be leaders in tackling the challenge of global warming. There are student groups, faculty, graduate students, and members of the administration already working to start MIT on the path to the change, such as a project to switch campus transport fuel to bio-diesel, building energy use audits, and the Energy Initiative. But to effectively combat global warming we need a broader change in perspectives and priorities. One way to get involved in these efforts is by joining a project or starting your own at the MIT Generator event tonight.

Global warming could cost the world up to 20 percent of its GDP, yet it would only cost one percent of the world’s GDP to stabilize carbon dioxide levels and reduce the threat of climate change. This prediction comes from Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist for the World Bank and government economic advisor in the United Kingdom.

Why will global warming cost the world so much, and why should we at MIT care? Global warming is already beginning to change regional climates, making dry places drier and drastically increasing extreme weather patterns such as droughts, hurricanes, and floods. A 2003 Pentagon report on the national security threat posed by global warming found that “the US will find itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, large number of refugees will be washing up on its shores, and Asia will be in serious crisis over food and water.”

A multi-year drought in Mexico or an extended monsoon in Bangladesh could wipe out that region’s crops for several seasons. A crisis of this proportion not only causes famine and death in the affected country, but quickly spreads to the entire region. According to the same 2003 Pentagon report, American policy would be to “strengthen borders around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and South America.” Energy supplies would have to be shored up through “expensive alternatives such as nuclear, renewables, and hydrogen.” Whatever we decided to do, it could take a dramatic toll on the U.S. economy.

To take another example, Bangladesh contains 150 million people within its borders, almost half of the U.S. population. It covers 150,000 square kilometers, 1.5 percent of the land that constitutes American soil. Most of Bangladesh’s citizens crowd along the tiny coastline. If global warming continues unabated, rising ocean levels will cause the coast of Bangladesh to be inundated. More than 15 million people will be forced out of their homes and into … where? There’s no easy place for them to go. This is a crisis of immense proportion. The potential effects in Bangladesh are just one example of many similar events that could be triggered worldwide by a rise in sea level, inevitable if global warming trends continue.

Third world countries around the world will be affected by global warming, but so will we. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrates, weather doesn’t discriminate to favor rich nations. Our country will face the same catastrophic floods, droughts, and hurricanes as other countries. We at MIT are not so far away from flooding ourselves: according to a study commissioned by the National Environmental Trust, a mere two foot rise in water level in New England coupled with a large storm could burst the Charles River dam and flood downtown Boston and Cambridge.

Those who are least responsible for global warming will pay the largest price. Fully 75 percent of carbon dioxide emissions are generated by only 20 percent of the global population, those who live in industrialized nations of the world. Almost 40 percent of those emissions are American. According to a World Bank database, the US emits nearly 20 tons of carbon emission per capita per year, compared to an average of less than 1 ton per capita per year in the poorest nations of the world. Furthermore, we have the resources to mitigate the effects of global warming in our country, while third world countries don’t. Is this just?

MIT emits 270,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year to power our dorms, buildings, and research labs. Because we at MIT are among those who contribute the most to global warming, it is only just that we accept our duty to respond to the crises that threaten to wipe out millions of our fellow humans. We must also consider that as likely members of the elite in the richest country in the world, we will be among the last to be affected by global warming. As the few with the most time, power, and resources, it is imperative that we respond to a threat capable of killing millions of our fellow humans.

How does this specifically apply to you and me? Why can’t we just go on watching videos on YouTube and leave the innovative, creative, and practical solutions necessary to solve global warming to the scientists, engineers, and politicos who will shape the world in the future? Oh wait. That’s us.

Froylan Emilfer Sifuentes is a member of the class of 2009.