This is the thirty-fifth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.
The issues that emerged at the Copenhagen climate conference serve to remind us of the difficulty of solving complicated cross-national environmental problems. Ever since Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner first popularized the idea of a single interconnected biosphere, it’s been obvious that national sovereignty would make it difficult to solve some global environmental problems. The climate problem is even more difficult than most, since its causes are everywhere and its impacts mainly in the future. It is becoming clear that the U.N.-dominated climate negotiation process is coming to an end, to be replaced by bilateral and multilateral negotiations among the two dozen or so major emitters of greenhouse gases.
This does not mean that the processes that first led to the Kyoto accords and then the Copenhagen conference should be seen as failures. The world received a crash course in climate science and policy in the past few weeks, and the conference created a venue and deadline that accelerated the negotiation process. However, while climate is a critical issue, it is not the only sustainability issue we need to address. It is time to broaden our focus.
The idea that the nations of the world would cede sovereignty over their economies to permit a global greenhouse gas cap-and-trade policy was misguided fantasy that is hopefully now laid to rest. So how do we move forward? The most obvious next step is to view the climate issue as only a part of the broader issue of global sustainability. We need to understand that the planet’s environmental health will be maintained only when people begin to understand its connection to sustainable economic development.
In some respects, the climate issue and the debate over emissions have been the world’s first major exposure to the centrality of this connection. Unfortunately the lesson seems to be that the price of economic growth is a warmer planet. This is a slightly modified version of the old lesson that we can’t have economic growth without poisoning the planet, whether through chemical pollution, nuclear waste or other environmental hazards. The problem with this thinking is that it fails to recognize the economic importance of the biosphere. We need a well-functioning biosphere to generate wealth, and when we damage that system, the price of repairing that damage is inevitably far greater than it would have been if we had managed to avoid damaging it in the first place. The key word here is management.
If we are to achieve worldwide economic development while maintaining a functioning, healthy biosphere, we must learn to control the impact of our activities on the planet. We need to learn how to distribute, process and use water efficiently. Sewage and other waste must be cleaned before it is returned to our rivers, lakes and oceans. Food must be mass produced, yet the land must retain capacity for regeneration. Our energy supply must be based on the virtually limitless source of the sun. The bottom line is that we must become more conscious of and careful with the complex web of life that supports the existence of species other than our own.
To accomplish all of these tasks, we must dramatically improve our understanding of this planet and the impact of our actions on its biosphere. The first step in developing the technology of sustainability is to develop the means of measuring the health of the planet in all of its intricate dimensions. Measurement is a critical element of management. If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it, because without measurement, you cannot tell if your management is making conditions better or worse. The specific measures of the planet’s conditions will help us identify problems and begin to work toward solutions. The goal of sustainability is nothing less than planetary management. That is an audacious goal, which we are a long way from achieving.
Climate change is among the first of the problems of planetary health that we have been able to identify. Measures of temperature, CO2, polar ice melt and worldwide sea-level rise have all been used to define its dimensions. We know there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere; we know where it comes from; and we know that it is warming the planet. What we don’t know is the impact this warming will have, or the best ways to adapt.
The most fundamental technical challenge is sustainable, fossil fuel-free energy. Today, renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels. We need new technology to rebalance that equation if we are to shift away from fossil fuels. Many wonder if that will ever happen. The cost of solar and wind power, battery storage and other technologies will almost certainly come down as we develop ways to promote and implement renewable energy in our everyday lives.
Sometimes national security drives the development of technology; sometimes it is public health. Laptops and the internet were products of American defense and space programs. London developed sewers and indoor plumbing to prevent the spread of disease. New York developed a hugely expensive water supply and transport system because local sources were polluted. I am sure that at the time, someone was saying: “Do you know how expensive this indoor plumbing will be? We’ll all go broke installing these pipes and pumps everywhere…”
The field of sustainability management must take center stage if globalization is to succeed in promoting efficiency and economic well-being. We have an enormous amount of work to do if we are to learn, analyze, strategize and govern effectively. Scientists, organizational managers and politicians must learn to deal with the complexities of the world we now live in. The noise and symbolic politics of Copenhagen may, for some, be a cause for despair. Nevertheless, it was an important step in a process that has been underway for years, and which will take decades more to “complete.” So, let’s not get distracted by the noise, and just get back to work.
A version of this piece previously appeared in the Huffington Post.
Steve Cohen is executive director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University.