Environmental Problems and American Politics: Why is Protecting the Environment so Difficult?

By Dustin R. Turin
2014, Vol. 6 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Environmental concerns have been of increasing salience to Americans since the 1960s, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and spurred public anxiety over the use of the widely utilized pesticide DDT. The impact of Carson’s work was hugely important, both for its eventual impact on regulation in the chemical fertilizer industry and for its role in bringing the environment more resolutely into American political consciousness.

In the wake of Silent Spring’s publication, DDT was banned, public attention was heightened, and in 1970 President Richard Nixon signed new legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Seemingly, concern for the environment moved out of the shadows and had found a definitive place on the political agenda.

Nevertheless, in the period since the EPA was created the debate over the environment became more political – and perhaps, less rational – than at any previous time. Today the politicization of the environment is apparent along stark right-left lines and the debate has become subsumed within broad philosophical and theological questions of ‘state versus market’ and ‘science versus faith.’

Tackling environmental problems today is more difficult because the nature of the "problems" has changed: where such problems were once primarily scientific and technocratic in nature, they are now almost exclusively problems of politics.

Perhaps ironically, considering the indiscriminate manner in which we all affect and are affected by the environment, the debate about the future of its protection is now a divisive ‘hot-button’ campaign issue. Being ‘green’ is equated to being ‘liberal,’ and ‘conservatives’ are expected to denounce ‘conservation.’ The future of the environment, at home and abroad, appears less certain then ever before even at a time when its potential to bring serious negative consequences for all humanity is more well-known then ever before.

In short, tackling environmental problems today is more difficult because the nature of the "problems" has changed: where such problems were once primarily scientific and technocratic in nature, they are now almost exclusively problems of politics.

Polar Bear in Svalbard

Will it take drowning Polar Bears to force action on climate change? Photo: Flickr/Smudge 9000 SA-2

This paper therefore approaches the politics of the environment in the U.S. from three perspectives: first, the environment is described as a problem of collective action writ large, wherein such paradoxes as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ belie rational individual behavior and make cooperation essential but difficult; second, the contemporary debate over the environment is described in terms of problem definition, revealing the subtle manner in which the political redefinition of environmental questions has shifted the debate into the polarized arena in which it today resides; and third, the environment is considered in the realm of public opinion.

Using the example of failed climate change legislation, these perspectives are brought together to provide a more nuanced understanding of why addressing environmental problems, particularly at this time and in the United States, is so exceedingly difficult.

Collective Action and the Tragedy of the Commons

Even outside the context of American politics, the environment presents challenges of a unique character. By their nature, environmental problems are ‘big’ problems that likewise affect ‘big’ groups of people and require ‘big’ solutions. Clean air cannot be achieved merely through the regulation of one industry in one part of the country, or through the passion of one highly motivated group or individual; in an even broader sense, clean air cannot even be achieved only through the cooperation of one country.

As an example: the ‘Asian brown cloud,’ a giant hazy cloud of polluted air visible from space, makes its way across Southern Asia with no respect for internationally recognized borders or local regulations. Likewise, climate change – from the perspective of many scientists, the most substantial threat facing all humanity (Rockström et al., 2009) – is a problem that is simply impossible to solve without widespread international cooperation.

Climate change is a problem that is simply impossible to solve without widespread international cooperation.

Yet problems that affect large groups and require collective action are recognized as some of the most confounding political conundrums. In a seminal work, Mancur Olson (1965) explored the incentive structures and resulting organizational patterns of various types of group interests.

Beginning from the assertion that organizations exist to pursue common interests, Olson identifies a central paradox in this pursuit: although the collective benefit in the provision of some common good might outweigh its collective cost, for the rational individual focused on maximizing his own interests the costs of participating in the organization often outweigh the individual benefits (p. 11). In other words, because common goods “must be available to everyone if they are available to anyone” (p. 14), it is economically more efficient for individuals to ‘free-ride’ in groups that seek to provide common goods.

This paradox finds particular salience in the realm of the environment, where the defining feature of most concerns is that they tend to be ‘commons’ problems, or problems dealing with resources that are shared by many and owned by none. In 1968 Garrett Hardin described the “tragedy of the commons,” whereby the collective outcome precipitated by many rational individuals is in fact quite irrational:

“Each pursuing his own best interest…. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush” (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244).

In simple terms, the use of common resources – forests, oceans, air – provide an immediate benefit for individuals; and while the benefit appears to come at minimal cost, or even to be ‘free,’ our collective use of these resources without restraint comes at great future cost. When one tree is felled to fuel a family fire, the individual utility gain is significant while the cost is apparently miniscule considering the vast number of trees in a forest; when, however, the local forest is utilized by thousands, tens of thousands, or many more individuals making a similar calculation, the result is fast-paced deforestation.

Or in a more contemporary example, when we get in our cars and drive to work in the morning, the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) attributable to our drive is so miniscule and inconsequential as to seem non-existent. But when thousands and millions of Americans wake up and drive to work, the impact is large enough to change the entire earth system.

Two factors make these types of problems fundamentally difficult to solve. First, the distribution of costs and benefits is different at the individual and collective levels. The cost-benefit calculation of individual actors makes using common resources a rational decision, because the ‘costs’ of use only accrue at the level of the collective. The costs associated with my own GHG emissions are, in isolation, essentially zero. Second, the temporal distribution of costs and benefits is such that the benefit is typically realized immediately, while the cost is not realized until much later.

The tangible gain from using common resources, for example the profit from cutting down a tree and turning it into floorboards, far outweighs any immediate cost to the individual. Yet if many individuals make the same decision, the forest will be destroyed over time. Likewise, the utility of my getting to work now far outweighs the distant potential impact of my car’s emissions. These two factors make commons problems difficult to solve, and thus often lead to the ‘tragedy’ that Hardin observed.

This paradox is closely associated with the particular challenges that Olson associated with certain group interests. As such, one of Olson’s key finding is that group size is fundamentally important to the provision of collective goods, or in environmental terms, the protection of collective goods. Olson finds that small groups are more likely to organize in service of such goods because the “personal gain [of each group member] from having the collective good exceeds the total cost of providing some amount of that collective good” (p. 34). Again, the fact arises that individual rationality cannot always be translated to collective rationality: those ‘goods’ that all are interested in obtaining are not always in the rational interest of individuals to attain.

As opposed to small groups, where the rationality of the individual and the collective are more easily held in line, larger groups (or interests) naturally produce a greater opportunity for individual members to free-ride (Olson, pp. 35-36). Interestingly, this produces the counterintuitive capacity for the “exploitation of the great by the small” (p. 37) in the process of interest articulation: in other words, it is inherently more difficult for groups formulated around large interests – such as the environment – to overcome smaller, more well-organized interests (e.g., the American Petroleum Institute).

The inherent collective action challenge facing large groups can be addressed in two ways: either coercive mechanisms are needed to compel membership in large group organizations, or selective benefits available only to members are required as inducements (Olson, p. 44). Thus, Olson argues that most collective action in the United States can be explained either through “by-product” or “special interest” theory. On the one hand, special interest theory is used to explain the organization of industries characterized by a small number of firms on the basis of the economic rationality of small group action (p. 135), whereas the pursuit of collective goods through large interest groups is explained by the fact that such pursuits are a ‘by-product’ of some other function performed by the group “in addition to lobbying for the collective good” (p. 132).

As a result, Olson observes that the largest groups that share “vital common interests” nevertheless tend to be the least organized and least capable of advancing those interests, because few individuals (with the exception of those on the ‘lunatic fringe,’ p. 162) will be “willing to make any sacrifices to achieve the objectives” of the group (p. 166). Clearly, this is often the position occupied by the ‘environment’ as a large and “vital” concern, yet one that is often defeated by the specific interests of smaller groups.

If environmental problems are collective action problems likely to suffer from the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ how can they be addressed? The solution to this type of problem, conventionally conceived, is located in the restructuring of the cost-benefit calculation of individuals such that the rational decision is no longer one leading toward inevitable depletion or destruction (Hardin, 1968, p. 1247; Ostrom, 1990; Vogler, 2012, p. 175).

Regulating the commons – controlling who has access, or how much access, or how a finite resource should be distributed – provides the basis for restructuring the decision-process and merging individual and collective rationality. Hardin phrased this process as “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” (p. 1247) and described how our conception of what constitutes the ‘commons’ has changed out of necessity over time:

“First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas… somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations…. Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty” (Hardin, p. 1248)

This point seems to be particularly salient in the contemporary debate: politicians have come to battling over the environment as a subject of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ rather than as the basic foundation upon which our existence depends. Generally speaking, dealing with environmental concerns requires the creation of new rules, the possible array of which were laid out in the pivotal work of Elinor Ostrom (1990), wherein a range of eight “design principles” are used to describe the process through which incentives can be restructured and sustained for the benefit of common pool resource management (see p. 90, Table 3.1).

Yet the basic incongruence between individual and collective rationality remains at the core of why addressing environmental problems is so difficult. They are emblematic of Olson’s collective action problem, wherein the mobilization of ‘big’ interests is harder to accomplish effectively then those of small, specific interests where costs and benefits are more efficiently distributed. The dynamics of this paradox, regardless of the increasing range of technocratic and scientific ‘fixes’ available to address the environmental problems of greatest concern, remain difficult to overcome.

Problem Definition and the Environment in the American Political Landscape

This paper has thus far referred repeatedly to the challenge of addressing environmental “problems,” generally understood. This section discusses the ambiguous nature of “problems” and how their definition and redefinition can drastically change the course and tenor of conversation as it pertains to their ‘solution.’

It is widely understood in policy literature that ‘problems’ have no objective definition and that the ability to manipulate the phrasing or comprehension of a particular political problem entails considerable ramifications as to the range of alternatives that are considered, the capacity of an issue to remain on the political agenda, or the possibility of reaching a solution at all. Indeed, many scholars conceive of the policy process as beginning at the point of problem definition (Jones, 1984; Kingdon, 1995; Stone, 2002).

E.E. Schattschneider (1960), who observed the inherently conflictual nature of politics captured by his infamous ‘fight’ analogy (p. 2), commented: “some issues are organized into politics, while other are organized out” (p. 69). In some sense, this can be taken as the basic conflict of problem definition, wherein certain actors seek to ‘expand’ the scope of a perceived problem while others attempt to control it and confine it to a particular, limited scope.

Not all ‘problems’ are viewed as problems appropriate for political action.

Thus, Stone (2002) indicates that each step in the decision-making process is used “[strategically] to control a decision” (p. 243). More specifically, Kingdon (1995) describes the process of problem definition in terms of the particular sets of conditions that we believe we should do something about (p. 109). In this sense, not all ‘problems’ are viewed as problems appropriate for political action (hence Schattschneider’s notion that some issues are ‘organized into politics’ – i.e., problematized as conditions necessitating a political response – while others are ‘organized out,’ in which case they may indeed still be considered ‘problems,’ but not problems for political action).

Conditions become defined as problems appropriate (or not) for political action according to values, comparisons (e.g., the Hudson River is dirtier than the Charles River), and categories (e.g., investment in ‘clean energy’ as an economic issue or an environmental issue) (Kingdon, pp. 109-113), while they come to the attention of policy makers through indicators, ‘focusing events,’ and feedback (pp. 90-100). Debate over the environment in the U.S. can therefore be viewed through this lens.

The failed attempt to implement a nationwide ‘cap and trade’ program provides a good case for a brief examination of problem definition in relation to American environmental policymaking. Cap and trade, a policy tool designed to place a total ‘cap’ on carbon emissions and facilitate the ‘trade’ of pollution allowances, is a mechanism designed precisely to address the paradox described in part one: it is designed to align economic rationality with collective rationality regarding the management of common pool resources.

Various forms of cap and trade have been used over past decades to address a range of environmental and public health issues, ranging from implementation in fisheries management, application to reduce levels of lead in gasoline, and to cut emissions of poisonous sulfur dioxide. Indeed, this market-oriented approach was historically bipartisan, supported by environmentalists and economists alike, and had been largely successful (Wagner, 2011, pp. 104-108).

Yet after the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” (H.R.2454) passed the House in 2009, the bill died in the senate in the midst of an increasingly heated debate about climate change (which was the ‘problem’ envisaged at the heart of cap and trade legislation).

This failure can be viewed in light of the successful redefinition of the problem of climate change, particularly in the vein of Schattschneider and then Kingdon, as a problem that – at least temporarily – was successfully ‘organized out’ of politics. At the core of this conflict was a debate over whether or not global warming, which all but the most zealous unbelievers agree is real, is ‘anthropogenic’—the result of human activities—or merely the product of a natural geological cycle.

The question of anthropogenic versus natural warming fed an ideological debate over whether the conditions associated with climate change—increased levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and warmer global temperatures—should in fact be classified as a “problem for which government action is an appropriate remedy” (Kingdon, p. 17). In particular, establishing a consensus that human beings in fact cause global warming is an important step toward necessitating government response as an “appropriate remedy” to the ‘problem.’ Otherwise, efforts to prevent climate change appear akin to trying to change the tides, stopper volcanoes, or prevent other naturally occurring phenomena.

The science on this topic is at this point unequivocal: an overwhelming majority of scientists around the world agree that global warming is caused by humans and that it poses a significant and increasing threat to society (Blatt, 2011, p. 273; see also Rockstrom et al). Nevertheless, as William Ruckelshaus, a former EPA administrator, pointed out, “the difficulty of converting scientific findings into political action is a function of the uncertainty of the science and the pain generated by the action” (Kraft, 2007, p. 19). Any human solution to global warming, such as cap and trade legislation to reduce GHG emissions, entails high economic costs in the short-term without tangible short-term benefits.

Meanwhile, political activists in the U.S. have succeeded in introducing a high-degree of uncertainty into the climate change debate, attempting to reorient the perception of global warming as a problem caused by humans—i.e., one that would clearly require a political response—toward a definition in which global warming is a natural phenomenon outside of our control, and therefore necessitating no response. Thus, seven in ten Democrats said in 2011 that they worry about climate change, compared to only three in ten Republicans.1 Moreover, in the 112th U.S. Congress, 74% of Republicans in the Senate publicly questioned the science of global warming; Gropp (2011) remarks:

“With each passing year it appears that there are fewer Republican members of Congress willing to embrace or act upon scientific knowledge, particularly when it relates to issues such as climate change.”

Meanwhile, environmental concerns were increasingly subsumed into issues of faith, further undermining the scientific basis of the ‘problem’ of climate change. In a widely attributed article, White (1967) argued “that Christian doctrines emphasize human supremacy over nature and that people who adhere to these doctrines tend to view nature as something to be dominated, conquered, and subdued,” making the “Judeo-Christian religious beliefs… fundamentally antienvironmental” (summarized by Schultz, Zelezny, & Dalrymple, 2000, p. 577). In a recent quantitative study, these results were confirmed: there is "strong evidence that a literal belief in the Bible is negatively related to ecocentric environmental concerns and positively related to anthropocentric concerns,” or concerns that see humankind as the most important element of existence (Schultz et al., p. 590).

Thus, American right politicians capitalized on these factors: they successfully questioned the science of global warming to recast climate change as something beyond human control, playing into an American public with strong religious beliefs and distressed by the potential costs of action. In short, they successfully organized climate change out of politics by redefining the problem as one without a human cause.

The Environment in American Public Opinion

The ramifications of the successful redefinition of climate change can be viewed in two stages: first, as the issue became increasingly polarized, attitudes in the public toward climate and toward the environment more generally began to reflect this shift; second, and partially as a result of this shift, climate change legislation – the 2010 cap and trade bill sponsored in the Senate by John Kerry (D-MA), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.

Exemplifying the basic tension that exists between the environment and the economy, survey data show that the American public typically view economic growth and environmental protection as contradictory goals. Figure 1, from a 2011 Gallup poll, shows with particular clarity the shift that took place in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis: 2

Gallup Poll on Public Opinion about Environmental Protection

Figure 1: Tension between environmental and economic concerns

For one, the sudden shift in opinion that occurs in late 2008 recalls Kingdon’s notion that ‘focusing events’ are highly important in determining the salience of issues on the national political agenda. Secondly, it is interesting to note the consistent decline of the environment when compared to the economy beginning in the Bush era, which is indicative of the consistent effort to redefine climate change as a problem not requiring the attention of government.

The trend revealed in Figure 1 speaks to a broad decline in American concerns about global warming: in 2000, 72% of Americans reported worrying “a great deal” about global warming, compared to just 51% in 2011.3 Meanwhile, this downward trend in concern about global warming occurred in spite of vastly improved research pointing toward the phenomenon’s human cause and disastrous consequences. A 2011 study, for example, predicts that at the current rate of warming and sea level rise California, Florida, New Jersey, and South Carolina will see at least 19.3 million Americans displaced from their homes by 2030 (Curtis & Schneider, 2011, p. 43).

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama attempted to bridge this gap by redefining the environment as “not just a challenge” but an economic “opportunity” to create millions of jobs, attempting to tie together the disparate goals of environmental protection and economic growth (Kline, 2011, p. 179).

Yet the unified effort on the political right to undermine the scientific validity of climate science, via constant questioning of any new research confirming anthropogenic warming, was an extremely effective tactic. As previously mentioned, it played directly into the religious narrative of anthropocentrism and into Americans’ desire to put the economy first. This was particularly true in the wake of the ‘focusing event’ of the 2008 financial crisis, after which for the first time since 1984 (when data is first available), Americans prioritized economic growth over environmental protection.4

In a 2011 poll, Americans were the most ‘informed’ about global warming yet the least likely to attribute warming to human causes, with only 34% of Americans responding that they thought global warming was a result of human activity.

Other polls speak even more directly to the efficiency with which the problem of climate change was redefined: in another 2011 poll, Americans were the most ‘informed’ about global warming (only 4% responded that they were not aware of global warming), yet the least likely to attribute warming to human causes, with only 34% of Americans responding that they thought global warming was a result of human activity (compared to 76% in Developed Asia and 49% in Western Europe).5

In 2013, Americans remain more polarized than ever before in their beliefs about the causes of global warming, with 78% of Democrats attributing warming to human activity and only 39% of Republicans answering the same, leading a recent Gallup report to conclude: “While fundamentally a scientific matter, the global warming debate has taken on strong political overtones, with Democrats broadly accepting the validity of global warming research and Republicans generally dismissing it.”6

The effort to discredit climate change as a problem requiring government attention peaked in 2010-2011, when serious climate change legislation was closest to being passed. When the Democrats lost their mandate in the 112th Congress, the possibility of climate chance legislation being passed was virtually eliminated. As such, attention shifted to other issues: healthcare, immigration, and now gun control.

Yet this brief inquiry into climate change in the American consciousness, and the environment more broadly, suggests two important points: first, competition over problem definition played a central role in discrediting climate science at a key moment, and in the end, Americans were more comfortable accepting a notion of global warming that better fit a short-run interest in maintaining the status quo; and second, as Olson and Hardin would predict, it is exceedingly difficult to synthesize individual rationality with collective rationality when common goods are at stake.

Conclusion: What Can Be Done to 'Save the Earth'?

Environmental problems in the U.S. are today political problems more than scientific ones. From a scientific standpoint, the biggest problem – high greenhouse gas emissions leading to a warming climate, in addition to myriad other environmental concerns (e.g., ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, desertification, etc.) – is well known, and its solution is likewise straightforward: reduced emissions of GHGs.

The technocratic tools are available to address this problem in the form of policy alternatives such as cap and trade, a ‘carbon tax,’ government investment in alternative energy, and reduced subsidies to carbon-intensive energies. But the ‘problems’ and concomitant ‘solutions’ that appear so obvious to the scientific community, when brought into the realm of politics, are no longer so clearly identifiable. Instead, they are subject to definition by whoever can craft the most compelling narrative.

This analysis of American environmental politics focused on three themes. At a fundamental level, environmental concerns are described as commons problems wherein the environmental commons is placed at an inherent disadvantage when located in reference to short-run individual interests. This point was clarified in an examination of public opinion data pertaining to the environment: during periods of prosperity, such as the mid-1990s to early 2000 and then from 2003 until late-2007, it was easy for Americans to prioritize the environment over the economy.

However, as soon as economic prosperity was threatened, Americans were quick to reshape their priorities. This speaks to Kingdon’s emphasis on ‘focusing events’ as fundamentally important to the level of issue salience (other scholars, e.g., Baumgartner and Jones 2009, also highlight these pivotal moments). It also suggests that environmental concerns, which on a spectrum of political goods might be considered ‘third-order’ goods, are particularly susceptible to being overwhelmed by other issues possessing more immediate and tangible impacts. After climate change legislation was displaced from the agenda by ‘Obamacare,’ it became unlikely that it would come up again in the near term.

Additionally, the process of problem definition in relation to the key environmental issue of climate change was examined. It was found that the political opponents of environmental regulation successfully redefined global warming as a problem not suitable for government action: in other words, they organized the environment out of politics. This was achieved, in part, through crafting a narrative that implicitly appealed to short-run interests over the collective interest by identifying climate change as a natural phenomenon rather than one with origins in human activity.

As a result, a large portion of the population questioned the science of global warming and at the key moment when a cap and trade bill was close at hand, almost 70% of Americans were skeptical of anthropogenic warming. Thus instead of being understood as a necessary undertaking in light of unequivocal scientific findings, climate change legislation was successfully recast as a choice demanding immediate economic sacrifice in order to address an issue outside human control with an impact, if at all, that would not be felt for generations. By reframing the problem, opponents of environmental reform made their preferred alternative – maintenance of the status quo – the obvious solution.

What does this inquiry tell us about the future of environmental politics in the U.S.? For one, it is apparent that any long-term solution to the type of common goods problem of which the environment is emblematic will require fixes that can align individual and collective interests.

Cap and trade was a tool aimed at this goal by providing a market incentive to reduce emissions. Even if an alternative solution is ultimately sought, any mechanism likely to succeed will be one that can achieve the same goal: through some mix of rules, sanctions, and rewards, environmental protection must be made individually rational.

Appealing to altruism and ecocentrism are unlikely to prevail in competition with short-run economic interests. Environmental problems need to be recast as economic opportunities.

Second, advocates of environmental reform must be conscious of how they seek to define the problems they are attempting to address. Appealing to altruism and ecocentrism are unlikely to prevail in competition with short-run economic interests; thus, Obama probably had the right idea when he originally attempted to describe environmental reform in terms of an economic opportunity (other examples should be utilized to drive home this point, such as the huge success of Germany’s solar industry). Emphasizing the economic risks associated with inaction might also be a useful strategy.

Finally, past evidence suggests that environmental reform is likely to meet the least resistance in a time of economic prosperity. In the current climate of relative economic distress, concerns over high unemployment and general economic stagnation will likely continue to belie the prioritization of a third-order good like the environment. To 'save the planet,' the narrative for environmental action needs to become more compelling.


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Curtis, K. J., & Schneider, A. (2011). Understanding the demographic implications of climate change: estimates of localized population predictions under future scenarios of sea-level rise. Population and Environment, 33(1), 28-54. doi: 10.1007/s11111-011-0136-2

Gropp, E. R. (2011). New Congress, Old Climate Rhetoric. BioScience, 61(2), 106.

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Schultz, P. W., Zelezny, L., & Dalrymple, N. J. (2000). A Multinational Perspective on the Relation between Judeo-Christian Religious Beliefs and Attitudes of Environmental Concern. Environment and Behavior, 32(4), 576-591. doi: 10.1177/00139160021972676

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  1. --. (2011). “Three key findings on American’s views of the environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from: http://www.gallup.com/video/146717/Three-Key-Findings-Americans-Views-Environment.aspx
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Despite all the information we have regarding climate change and the potential perils of continuing on our path of consumption, people are slow to make the necessary changes. Our tendency to live habitually and the dampening effect continuous negative... Read Article »

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