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 said.
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 climate change.
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 political change.
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.