On Friday, Feb. 22, US Representative Mike Gallagher of
Wisconsin’s Eighth District visited Lawrence University for a panel and Q&A
on climate change hosted by Assistant Professor of Biology Israel Del Toro.
Students and faculty filled the Cinema on Friday
afternoon to hear Gallagher and a panel of Lawrence University professors
speak. The panel was made up of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Deanna
Donohoue, Associate Professor of History Monica Rico, Stephen Edward Scarff
Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government Jason
Brozek and The John R. Kimberly Distinguished Professor of the American
Economic System and Associate Professor of Economics David Gerard.
The discussion proceeded with introductions from each of
the panel’s four faculty panelists.
Donohoue began with a slideshow titled “Carbon Dioxide in
Our Atmosphere in Six Minutes or Less.” Donohoue explained that there is an
energy balance in our atmosphere and the energy that flows in should be equal
to the energy that flows out. “We are out of balance, and that’s where the
source of climate change is,” Donohoue said. When the carbon dioxide levels are
too high, heat gets trapped in the atmosphere, which causes global warming.
Donohoue explained how scientists can use carbon isotopes
to determine the source of the carbon emissions, and the isotopic analysis
proves that the emissions are mostly coming from human activity.
Rico was the next to speak, and began by talking about
Fred Kaftan, who was a member of the Wisconsin State Senate from 1949 to 1953
and pioneered many of Wisconsin’s anti-water pollution efforts. Rico said that
Kaftan was once hailed as the “unsung hero of water pollution” by the
Janesville Gazette. Kaftan is less known for his conservation efforts than Aldo
Leopold and Gaylord Nelson because he had to deal with the hard reality of
passing laws. Rico pointed out that environmental protection used to be an
issue that was supported by both major political parties but has recently
become less universally supported.
After the short history of Kaftan’s work, Rico posed the
question: What happened to bipartisanship cooperation?
Gallagher responded to this by lamenting that the
executive branch has become too powerful, and much of the action accomplished
in government is done through executive order. Gallagher said that executive
orders “are effective in the short term if you happen to agree with whoever’s
in the White House,” but they are ineffective for long-term change.
Brozek followed this with a brief introduction to the
efforts taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Paris Climate
Conference in 2015. Brozek explained that the US is not doing enough to meet
the goals agreed upon at the conference, especially since the 2016 presidential
election, and that the goal is a very low one in the first place.
“What do we do between now and 2025 to meet even that low
threshold we’ve set for ourselves?” Brozek asked.
Gallagher responded to this by saying that he is
skeptical of a carbon fee and dividend system to tax fossil fuels, because he
doesn’t want higher prices passed on to consumers and he does not trust the
government to make good on its word to return the money to the American people.
Gallagher proposed his own solution to combat climate
change: to eliminate subsidies in the tax codes for fossil fuels. He also said
that the US needs to work towards developing its energy-related technology,
such as solar batteries and microreactors.
Gerard was the final panelist to present, starting out by
comparing carbon emissions to a system of stocks and flows. Gerard explained
that even if the world were to cut carbon emissions to nothing, we would still
have a problem with all of the carbon dioxide that has already been produced.
The solution, according to Gerard, is to tax carbon so
that people use less energy and battery, wind and solar technology become more
attractive. “You wanna get rid of something, get rid of it directly,” Gerard
In response to Gallagher’s previous comments about
subsidies, Gerard also added, “I’m really skeptical Congress has the will to
really eliminate some of the subsidies that would be essential.”
Following this, the audience was allowed to ask questions
of the panelists, interspersed with questions that had been asked online and
were read by Del Toro. One of the questions directed at Gallagher asked what he
thinks can be done to increase Congress’ sense of urgency in dealing with
Gallagher used himself as an example on how to do this,
describing how concerned citizens came to him and convinced him of the science
of climate change and the need to combat it. Gallagher expressed his belief
that genuinely engaging with elected officials is one of the best ways to make
One audience member posed a commonly-heard question to the
panel: there is already a lot of carbon out there, does adding more even
matter? Donohoue answered with an emphatic yes, reiterating her original point
that adding more carbon prevents more infrared radiation from escaping the
atmosphere. She also pointed out that even reducing our carbon output a small
amount gives us more time to find a solution.