Wired magazine’s June cover story would have the entire environmental movement drop everything but one campaign. You don’t need to see the cover to know they’re talking about climate change. Does such single-mindedness make even the slightest bit of sense? Sort of. But not for the reasons the editors provide.
First, it should be noted that Wired‘s attempt to explain why you should “Keep your SUV. Forget Organics. Go nuclear. Screw the Spotted Owl” and instead focus on just one thing: cutting carbon, is accompanied by a counterpart that makes eminently more sense. In his rebuttal, Alex Steffen agrees wholeheartedly that dealing with climate change is absolutely necessary,
But to see everything through the lens of short-term CO2 reductions, letting our obsession with carbon blind us to the bigger picture, is to court catastrophe.
To have any hope of staving off collapse, we need to move forward with measures that address many interrelated problems at once. We’re not going to persuade people in the developing world to go without, but neither can we afford a planet on which everyone lives like an American. Billions more people living in suburbs and driving SUVs to shopping malls is a recipe for planetary suicide. We can’t even afford to continue that way of life ourselves.
We don’t need a War on Carbon. We need a new prosperity that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits — not just atmospheric gas concentrations, but topsoil depth, water supplies, toxic chemical concentrations, and the health of ecosystems, including the diversity of life they depend upon.
All that is true, and I’m not really sure why anyone at Wired would even try to argue otherwise. Their case in favor of nuclear power, for example, is woefully short of convincing. It managed to completely ignore the economics of the technology, economics that make nuclear a more expensive way to reduce CO2 emissions that numerous clean alternatives. If you doubt that, ask yourself why no one will build a nuke on this continent without government subsidies and an exemption from liability insurance.
Similarly, the Wired case that we’d be better off using more air conditioning to keep ourselves cool rather then more radiators to keep ourselves warm makes no mention of the far more important contribution of proper insulation to structural thermoregulation. Indeed, it is entirely possible (and affordable) to build a house in New England (though maybe not Edmonton) that requires no dedicated heating system all. Just ask the visionaries at Rocky Mountain Institute, which years ago was heating its entire Colorado mountain complex with the waste energy from a photocopier.
But all of this is just to show that Wired hasn’t done its research. The point I want to make is that, even without the ammunition supplied by bogus arguments against the conventional wisdome of environmentalism, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that climate change is the single most important public policy challenge facing civilization.
Steffen is dead on when he points to the ecological reality that everything is interconnected. As Garrett Hardin said, it is impossible to do just one thing. Reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that trap all that extra solar energy in the atmosphere and you also get rid of the smog that makes the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a challenging place for a strenuous hike. Stop drilling for oil in sensitive places and suddenly a lot of species aren’t teetering on the brink of extinction. Stop trying to replace edible crops with truck fuel, and a lot of people aren’t going to need to riot to get access to affordable food.
But even if none of that were true, there would be still be a good reason to devote the lion’s share of our political and economic resources to getting us off the fossil fuel train. Not all our energies, mind you. Just as you can’t ask a candidate for president to ignore every issue but your particular hobby horse, you can’t expect every environmentally minded citizen to embrace the same priority list. What you can do is recognize that whatever do you care about, from biodiversity to toxic waste, you should also care very much about global warming.
The Earth may nor may not be a self-regulating superorganism, as James Lovelock posits, but it is a richly interwoven ecosystem that can be tipped into a new equilibrium that is much more hostile to human life than the one in which we spent most of the last 200,000 years evolving in sync with. And only one issue threatens to push the planet into such a state.
Sure, a catastrophic decline in species numbers would be a bad thing, but most of human culture could make do without the spotted owl, polar bear or snail darter. It would be a sadder world, and some will be missed more than others, of course. For example, it will be hard to get by without bees to pollinate our crops, but it we’d figure something out.
And yes, contaminated water does pose significant risks to many populations of Homo sapiens. But water can be purified, filtered and, if necessary, desalinated. You just need money and an energy source.
But climate change is an entirely different beast. By altering the amount of heat that stays in the biosphere instead of reflects back into space, we are tinkering with the thermostat that makes the planet habitable for humans. It is no exaggeration to raise the specter of changes so dramatic that much of the planet will not be able to support human life without extraordinary measures, measures comparable to those required to live on Mars, or underwater. Such adaptations are theoretically possible, but not feasible for any but a tiny fraction of the world’s 6.5 billion humans.
The end of what Spock would call Class M status for the planet is a worst-case scenario. Lovelock’s nightmare of a few hundred survivors on the north cost of Greenland is probably far too bleak. A more likely outcome is simply a lot more hardship for most of humanity. But no other environmental threat comes with such a dire worst-case —;;;;; for us. This is why climate change is so important and why Wired‘s conclusion is inescapable:
…global warming threatens to overwhelm any progress made on other issues. The planet is already heating up, and the point of no return may be only decades away. So combating greenhouse gases must be our top priority.
I only differ to the extent that Wired would have us ignore everything else, and I see most of the other issues (with the possible exception of genetically modified organisms) as mutually inclusive, rather than exclusive, responses.