The Pros (and Cons) of the Non-CO2 Case for Sustainability

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From my musings on whether environmentalism is a movement or not to Brian's piece on why religious language on Global Warming is a mistake, it's common for commenters to argue that greens focus too much on climate change. After all, everyone can get behind energy efficiency, cleaner air and water, and prestine nature—whether or not they believe that manmade global warming is a real and present danger. So should we be focusing more on non-CO2 benefits of sustainability, and does climate change even matter? On the surface of things, these commenters have a point. Sustainability has always had so much more to offer than a simple cut in carbon emissions. One editorial cartoon I saw recently made the case perfectly. Of course I now can't find the original to share, so I'll paraphrase:

(Question to climate change speaker from audience.) "Excuse me. But what if we do build walkable communities? What if we do create an energy independent nation? What if we do clean our air and our water? What if we regenerate our forests, protect wilderness and improve the performance of our buildings? What if we create fertile, productive soils? What if we do all that, and Global Warming turns out to be a hoax?! Won't it all have been for nothing?"

Certainly, we need to be careful not to focus entirely on carbon emissions. We must make the case for sustainability as an opportunity to rethink every aspect of our 20th Century infrastructure. Even if someone believes that climate "gate" (anyone else sick of "gates"?) really did expose the biggest and most implausibly intricate conspiracy ever conceived of, it is hard to argue against the fact that America would be better off if it was less dependent on foreign oil, and wasn't reliant on blowing up its mountain tops to create electricity. At the heart of it, sustainability is nothing more than solid, strategic common sense.

Having said that, I think it would be foolish to ignore the pressing need to cut carbon emissions, just because a certain segment of the population (and vested interest climate lobby groups) believe it to be a contentious issue. It's true that the behavior of a few scientists at CRU has proven to be disappointing, to say the least, and that the IPCC has exhibited some shoddy procedures to identify non-peer reviewed literature, but that doesn't change the fact that a vast majority of the world's climate scientists believe that climate change is real. (To those who argue that appeals to expertise and consensus mean nothing in science, they are right—but they mean everything in scientifically-informed policy making.)

There is a strong moral case for continuing to push for CO2 reductions, even if it is harder work in the short term. As someone recently argued to me, if someone was about to get on a plane which 9 out of 10 aeronautical engineers said was unsafe, but which 3 chiropractors, a nuclear physicist and the owner of the airline said was just fine, there would be a strong moral compunction for us to continue to warn the passengers—even if they didn't want to hear it.

There is also the fact that we have limited time, and resources, to pursue sustainability, so we need to target our efforts effectively. If a majority of scientists, including some of the most esteemed National academies of countries across the Globe, tell us that cutting carbon emissions is a precondition for stable and prosperous future generations, then we would be foolish to concentrate purely on energy independence, or any other pillar of sustainability. From coal gasification to tar sands there are plenty of sources of domestic fossil fuels that could helps us achieve energy independence. Sadly, they would do so at the cost of the climate.

In the end, it comes down to "both-and", not "either-or". By all means, we need to keep pushing the idea that sustainability is a win-win situation, and that green development brings so much more than low carbon emissions. It also makes sense to hone our message to our audience—if someone I know is pre-disposed to believe that Al Gore really is out to run the world, and I am just one of his satanic minions, then of course I am more likely to make the case that sending money to Saudi Arabia is stupid, whichever way you look at it.

But until there is some compelling evidence, not just that certain climate scientists have acted foolishly, but that climate change is not, and is not likely to be, a clear and present danger, we need to keep pushing for CO2 cuts. Let's just make sure that's not all we do.

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