State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Climate and COVID as Crises of Environmental Sustainability

The developed world is a technological marvel that our grandparents, or at least our great grandparents, could barely have imagined. Air conditioning, automobiles, movies on demand, smartphones, the internet, global travel, drones, e-commerce: the list is virtually endless. Human technology and ingenuity have created a world of comfort, curiosity and creativity. But as we created that world and multiplied our population to nearly eight billion humans, we failed to account for the impact of our technology and lifestyle on the interconnected physical and biological systems that sustain the planet and in turn sustain human life.

Climate change is taking place because we did not pay attention to the impact of burning fossil fuels on the physics or earth systems of our planet. We did not think about the damage we might do to the amazing arrangement of chemicals in our atmosphere that enables our planet to maintain the temperatures that support the biology we call life. COVID-19 has spread around the world because humans encroached unknowingly on natural environments and creatures that allowed us to be exposed to a virus that we were not immune to. Not only that, but the technology of global travel enabled this virus to spread throughout the world in record time. What ecologists call “invasive species” are clearly as great a threat to humans as climate change.

Both climate and COVID are cases in which our technology was used without considering its impact. They are different types of problems: one rooted in physics or earth systems science, the other in biology or life science. But they are related because they were both caused by humans pursuing economic development without factoring in the impact of our behaviors on the environment and the impact of the environment on us. This is not an argument against technology. That particular horse has left the barn. It is an argument for the precautionary principle in the use of new technology. We need to think through the environmental impact of our new technologies before we use those technologies. When we see or project the potential negative impact of those technologies, we should begin developing new technologies to mitigate that impact.

For both climate and COVID, we are doing just that. Renewable energy technology, energy efficiency methods and technologies and high-tech agricultural practices are being developed to reduce the creation of greenhouse gases. Vaccines and treatments are being developed to reduce the impact of COVID-19. The problem is that we only seem to mobilize when we need to remedy a crisis. Instead, we need to learn how to prevent crises before they happen.

An obstacle to preventing sustainability crises is the role of science in our political and economic system and the role of government and business in funding science and technology. The root cause of the problem is that our response to the increasing complexity of the modern world is increased specialization of expertise. Modern professionals have very narrow bands of expertise. Liberal arts are out of style and knowing what you don’t know is seen as a luxury as students want to learn things that can be easily monetized. The lawyers and finance wizards running government and the economy are largely scientific illiterates. The scientists who understand climate and COVID have little understanding of politics, public policy, economic systems and organizational management.

We have seen the clash of the worlds of science and politics in real-time during these COVID-19 lockdowns. Here in New York, the governor sidelined the New York State Health Department and caused nine senior officials to quit. Even though New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had well-established expertise in contact tracing, our mayor bypassed the department and used the Health and Hospitals Corporation to organize the city’s contact tracing. And then of course we all saw the absurd spectacle of Donald Trump and his ideologically driven and stylized misunderstanding of medical science and scientists. We have experienced a year of lockdown, illness and death due to a failure of our political process to enhance and adequately govern our inadequate system of public health. The worlds of public health and politics must somehow be brought into synch.

In climate science, we have long seen the communications disconnect between decision makers and scientists. In both COVID and climate, we have seen scientific fact converted into partisan and even cultural flashpoints. Influenced by ideology and ignorance you will hear some people say “I don’t believe in COVID or I don’t believe in climate change.” As if these facts are values one can favor or oppose. Climate change and disease are scientific facts, not religious or political perspectives to believe in and support or oppose. Clearly, something is missing from the dialogue. Political leaders and scientific experts must be better connected than they are today, or we will see a constant stream of sustainability crises for decades to come.

I have long been concerned about the need for more sophisticated and routinized use of scientific expertise in public policymaking. Our global economy and therefore our political stability depends on a high throughput system of economic production and consumption. To maintain economic and political stability and to increase economic production to raise the developing world out of poverty, we must pay far greater attention to the environmental impact of economic life. To do this we must find a way to increase the scientific and technological content of public and private management. Managers and policymakers must focus on the “physical dimensions” of environmental sustainability and reduce the environmental damage caused by the organizations they run. The development of a circular economy where no resources are discarded and all are used and re-used is not an ideological dream, but a practical necessity on our crowded planet.

How do we get from the current situation of science denial and ignorance to a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of human technologies on the planet? We need sustainability professionals who are not medical or climate experts, but understand enough biology, ecology, medical science, physics and climate science to serve as translators between scientists and decision makers. Sustainability professionals also need to understand politics, policy and management and be able to speak the language of politics and corporate board rooms as well as science and technology. We need professionals who help managers and policymakers understand science and technology and help scientists and engineers understand organizations, political and economic reality.

The two master’s programs I direct at Columbia University have long had the goal of educating sustainability professionals who can serve as “translators.” We are approaching 2,000 graduates of these programs: the Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Science and Policy and the Master of Science (MS) in Sustainability Management. The MPA program was established in 2002, the MS program in 2010. Many other universities have started similar programs and it is critical that we understand the role of sustainability professionals in bridging the chasm between leadership and science. While these sustainability professionals can serve as translators, our finance, legal, policy and scientific experts must rediscover liberal arts and pay some attention to academic fields that help them understand the world outside of their narrow bands of knowledge. As educators, we need to discourage students from abandoning the study of history, civics, humanities and the arts in their ceaseless quest to develop “marketable skills.”

COVID-19 and climate change will not be the last crises of environmental sustainability we will face. We have institutionalized disregard of the impact of our technologies on the planet’s physical and biological systems. The environmental issues I worked on at the start of my career were some early indicators of our willingness to ignore the environment: in the 1970s I worked on water pollution and air pollution; in the 1980s and 1990s I focused on toxic waste, solid waste, leaking underground storage tanks, nuclear waste and urban sprawl. Now we can add zoonotic disease and global warming to the list. COVID and climate are the current crises of environmental sustainability. Who knows what will come next? As 2021 starts to look too much like 2020, what will it take for us to learn from these massive errors in collective judgment? When will we learn to be less arrogant and more humble in the face of the force of nature?

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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