Climate is about carbon, whereas the environment is about much more. The two are linked in interesting and intricate ways, but they are very different. Over the last year, repeated comments on stories I have written reflect a confusion of the two. Or, if not confusion, certainly a melding as if one problem is the other, and their solutions are the same. They are not. Climate change is one particular environmental problem with a particular cause. The environment as a whole involves a much larger challenge to the overall biosphere and includes things like overfishing, acid rain, toxic waste, nutrient run-off, and more. It also includes climate change.
The melding of these ideas is dangerous to the solution for climate change. Reasonable people will differ on the priorities, but to me, climate change is our most urgent problem. It exacerbates almost all environmental problems rooted in biosphere ecology. Climate change is affecting fisheries, grasslands, animal populations, species diversity, forests, marine diversity, and more, yet the converse is not accurate. It is not true that the changes in fisheries, grasslands, animal populations, species diversity, and marine diversity are the causes of climate change. Changes in forestation are an obvious exception, especially deforestation in the Amazon. While these other problems are affected by climate change, solving these problems will not, in and of themselves, solve climate change.
You can’t boil the ocean
The world’s environmental problems are multi-causal and enormously complex. Solutions suggested often involve overthrowing the economic order, creating some form of socialist intervention, and reducing choices for consumption, procreation, and economic creativity. Visions of a future society put forward often highlight Cuba, China before industrialization, and conflicting pictures of intensified urban environments focused on pedestrians, biking, and mass transit or visions of an agrarian idealism that also calls up images from centuries past. The New Green Deal weaves in many of these ideas. My point is not to judge these visions or ideas, but simply to point out the magnitude of the undertaking. In business, we had a name for this: “Boiling the ocean.” This phrase came up when the undertaking at hand was just too big to do all at one time. Managers could see that teams trying to boil the ocean were doomed to failure. Fixing the entire biosphere problem is boiling the ocean. Solving climate change is not.
We can’t solve biosphere ecology without solving climate change
Biosphere health and diversity is a huge problem that needs to be solved. It has many factors, including climate change. Climate change itself will radically alter the biosphere and already has done so. Arctic sea ice has shrunk radically, changing the habitat for many animal species. The northern Minnesota boreal forest has lost nearly all of its black spruce trees and moose due to a changed climate. The snow crab population has collapsed in Alaska due to climate change and increasing water temperatures. The list goes on.
These and other examples illustrate a major point: There is no way to solve biosphere health and diversity without solving climate change, yet climate change can be solved without fixing the biosphere. Solving climate change is a necessary condition for solving the bigger issue. If we don't solve it, all efforts to address the biosphere challenge are pointless. So as well-meaning folks focus on the totality of biosphere solutions, it amounts to an attempt to boil the ocean. IT can't be done, is doomed to failure, and requires enormous energy and time from people that are then not focused on climate change. Meanwhile, climate change is getting worse, the prospects for success are waning, and any solution to the biosphere problem becomes impossible.
We know the solutions for climate
As I said before, climate change is about carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That is a solvable problem, but all hands are needed. The solution has two obvious parts: Stop emitting carbon and reduce the carbon already in the air. IPCC says we need to be at 350 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere to stop the warming trend and avoid the worst effects. Right now, we are at 417 ppm and getting worse. So, both factors are needed.
Society needs energy, and we can generate it without GHG emissions by using renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. As we replace fossil fuel burning with these sources, GHG emissions go down while obtaining the energy our society needs. Doing so, however, faces enormous challenges. Batteries for power storage are essential, but we don’t have technologies that meet all the needs yet. There are rare earth minerals needed for our current solutions, and the problem is that those minerals are, well, rare. Solar panels are only 20% efficient in converting energy, so there is a long way to go in capturing more of the energy sent by the sun. No solution can be found to climate change without a radical change in our energy system, so this should be the primary focus of all creative, solution-driven efforts on climate. The primary work is to invent and bring to market the solutions we need, and because, increasingly, those solutions result in reduced costs, less and less intervention from the political realm is necessary. We can’t boil the ocean, but we can fix this.
These solutions reduce or eliminate GHG emissions. For carbon already in the air, we need to recapture it either through carbon-capture technologies or through carbon sinks—i.e., the growth and expansion of forests. Both are required. Reforestation and forest protection are likely a bigger effort because they often conflict with local economic and political interests, which are always more immediate than those of global concern, and therefore always harder and slower to implement at a global scale. Carbon capture and sinking technologies are on the cutting edge of research today, with new ways opening all the time. A Swiss company called Climeworks has found a way to capture carbon and put it deep into the earth, locked away forever. Recent research has also shown how to take carbon out of the air and trap it in concrete. As with the development of renewable energy technologies, carbon capture technology is limited only by the commitment and inventiveness of engineers, as well as the demands of the marketplace.
In other words, we know what needs to be done. We also know it is not happening fast enough. That means we need more energy, effort, and dedicated commitment to these two aspects of the ultimate solution. With tens of thousands of empty jobs in the green energy/carbon solutions sector, including not just engineering and research but also marketing, sales, communications, administration, and so on, global efforts to develop solutions are going slower than they otherwise would. While people devote their energies to life as usual, or even to environmental problems that won’t solve climate change, the earth just keeps warming. The way to make a difference is not to consume less; it is to contribute to the solutions in a meaningful way.
Government has a role
I am not arguing that there is no role for government. There certainly is and it can be very helpful. In the US, for example, the tax credit incentive for adopting solar and wind power has been integral to expanding the market to create more incentives for private industry to bring forth solutions—and to reduce costs. It has worked. Those incentives brought down construction costs for solar systems by about 90% since 2010, to the point now where solar and wind are less expensive than any fossil fuel-derived energy—both in initial construction costs and in ongoing energy generation costs.
While the government can be helpful, these programs are specific and targeted. They are not attempts to boil the ocean through global revolution. Nor are they hard-nosed attempts to overcome local resistance to a global plan. Conditions may ripen for such radical changes to be implemented, but they are not there now. And that's a good thing. The only thing that will ripen those conditions is a more extreme ecological disaster brought on by climate change. The whole goal is and should be, to avoid such a disaster.
Separating the environment from climate is essential
Biosphere health is not the same as climate change, and I hope that activists will begin to think more clearly about the differences. Climate change is a contained, definable problem that we can solve with technology and innovation and the tacit support of governments. Biosphere diversity is a much bigger problem, and it can’t be solved without climate change being solved. Activists must think harder about not just their ideal solutions, but about what we can actually accomplish. Sure, it would be great to revolutionize everything with degrowth or a Green New Deal, but we will never succeed at that before our situation is so dire that there is no alternative to catastrophe. What would that look like? Millions of people perishing in heat waves, social chaos of migration on a scale we can’t even imagine, fires and floods raging in places they have never been before, and on and on. The Bible’s book of revelation will look like a walk in the park next to that situation, and only then will global actors move to boil the ocean. Of course, by then it will be too late, and it will likely still be impossible.
If we want to succeed on climate change, we have to focus on it. Rather than distracting the debate into arguments on government control, carbon footprints, economic degrowth, and biosphere health, we need to dedicate creative energy to the actual solutions and realize that in solving climate change, we are also contributing to the biodiversity solution. We can do this. We just need the intellectual and energetic discipline to do it.
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Excellent piece. You make a strong argument.