Beyond Climate: The Crisis of Environmental Sustainability

by |September 23, 2019

Last week and this week many of us are correctly focused on the existential threat of climate change but we must not lose sight of the other deep problems of environmental sustainability that also require action. The good news about climate change is we know a great deal about what causes it and how to stop it. We have much more to learn to fully understand this critical problem, but climate science is more advanced than many other areas of environmental science. The economic and policy issue of climate change is caused by the intense need for energy in the developed and developing world and the huge investment made globally in fossil fuels. Decarbonization will require skill, ingenuity and leadership, and we’ll see how much of that is present in New York when the U.N. gets to work on climate this week.

Some of the other environmental problems we face still require basic research to fully understand, and even when we know the cause of a problem, we may not know how to solve it. One example of such a problem is declining bird populations, an issue that Carl Zimmer covered in last week’s New York Times.  According to Zimmer:

The skies are emptying out. The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago. The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations… There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides. ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds: ‘On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.’

The loss of birds and threats to many forms of life are an increasingly accepted part of our modern world. Fires in the Amazon are destroying critical and poorly understood ecosystems, plastics in our ocean are destroying various forms of sea life, lead in our water supply is impairing human health and toxics in our waste stream are finding their way into our food supply. The complex and interconnected web of life that makes human life possible, happy and healthy is under deep threat by the technology that also makes human life rewarding, interesting, happy and healthy. In many cases, we do not fully understand the threat and we desperately need additional scientific research, observation, theory and knowledge. If we are to sustainably manage our planet, we need to invest significant additional resources in the science of ecology and environment.

With most of the world’s population in cities, some people may be tempted to ignore these threats to our biosphere and to the ecosystems that comprise it. Some may think we can somehow transcend and ignore nature. But we cannot: Despite the wonders of our technology and the ingenuity that creates it, we humans remain organic, living creatures. We rely on the planet for the food and water that sustains us, and if that food and water is poisoned, we can get sick and die.

Technology provides us with the ability to live the wondrous lives that many of us live, but if the impact of that technology on our planet is ignored, the planet and its inhabitants such as birds and humans can be harmed. The technology that creates harm can also be used to reduce that harm. We can reduce pollution and if we get sick, variants of the technologies that make us sick can also be used to diagnose and treat our illnesses. Think of radioactive materials used in imaging and the chemicals used in chemotherapy. Technology both creates and solves problems. But to successfully apply technology to our problems we need to understand these problems and we need science and engineering knowledge to solve them.

This places a heavy burden on scientists and engineers. This burden is made worse by public officials who are scientifically illiterate and by business people who place profit above the planet’s well-being. In the case of climate science, opponents of greenhouse gas regulation have tried to delegitimize the science. We saw this before with tobacco and cancer. The strategy seems to be to attack the science and reality will somehow go away. Scientists then find themselves defending their work against attacks that are not rooted in science. Many environmental scientists are amateurs at politics and their advocacy can range from naive to extreme. They are experts at science and can defend their work before careful and reasoned academic critiques, but they don’t quite know what to do with the attacks rooted in interest group politics and financial self-interest.

Political interference in scientific research and analysis attempts to replace fact and reason with ideology and bias. This takes us in the opposite direction of the places we need to go. We need ever more sophisticated observations, analyses and models to understand the impact of human activity on the planet. We need to carefully and thoughtfully understand the impacts of our actions and then just as carefully frame approaches to mitigate the damage we have created. Once we develop methods and mechanisms that reduce environmental damage, we need a political process that can scale up these solutions and either through markets, regulation, subsidy or infrastructure, implement and operate these solutions.

Zimmer’s New York Times piece last week demonstrates the power of scientific knowledge and the success it can lead to. As Zimmer observes:

The researchers found some positive signs. Bald eagles are thriving, for example, and falcon populations have grown by 33 percent. Waterfowl are on the upswing. For the most part, there’s little mystery about how these happy exceptions came to be. Many recovering bird species were nearly wiped out in the last century by pesticides, hunting and other pressures. Conservation measures allowed them to bounce back.

The conservation methods require that our use of land be regulated and that critical habitats be left in their natural states. This can be accomplished by concentrating our urban development and by more efficient use of land for farming. The article notes that if we made skyscraper windows easier for birds to see they might avoid flying into them and could survive. All of this requires that we pay attention to what we do when we make use of the planet and that we adopt an environmental ethic of doing the least possible harm. I am not arguing against economic development, but for a more thoughtful version of it that makes conscious rather than unthinking trade-off decisions when we impact the environment.

Climate change, toxic contamination of the land, ecosystem destruction, air pollution and water pollution are all forms of environmental degradation that we need to learn more about and act to reduce. Each is important. If we decarbonize our economy and stop global warming, but destroy our land, air and water and wipe out the forms of life we depend on, we may find that some of the damage we’ve done will be irreversible. Environmental sustainability requires that we stop global warming, but we must move beyond climate change and address the other critical challenges confronting the planet.

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