The Defining Challenge of Our Time

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 23, 2012 7:45 PM


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It's a shame that our public discussions of energy and environmental issues are so narrowly (and ideologically) framed by politicians, industry, and interest groups. For example, to listen to Republicans, you wouldn't know there's an energy drilling boom underway in the U.S. This ambitious NYT piece unwinds how that boom happened, and where it is may be headed. It's a nice overview of the implications for U.S. foreign policy and the tradeoffs of expanded oil & gas development (think environmental). As a supplement, check out Bryan Walsh's incisive analysis of President Obama's energy policy and the politics that shape it. Both pieces make for essential reading, helping us to understand larger (and conflicting) forces at work. They are also a useful tonic to the noisy, one dimensional energy narrative that usually plays out in the media. This brings me to my larger point. Much of the discussion on energy is driven either by raw politics or, in green circles, peak oil and/or climate change concerns, with the environmental media largely focused on the latter. But as Jon Foley lamented several years ago:

In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

This sentiment was recently echoed by Tom Murphy, a University of California physicist who has a blog called, Do the Math. Murphy shared his view in a wide-ranging interview with A recent report stated that replacing all coal based power stations with renewable energy, would not affect climate change, and in fact after 100 years the only difference would be a change of 0.2 degrees Celsius. What are your views on climate change? Tom Murphy: I see climate change as a serious threat to natural services and species survival, perhaps ultimately having a very negative impact on humanity. But resource depletion trumps climate change for me, because I think this has the potential to effect far more people on a far shorter timescale with far greater certainty. Our economic model is based on growth, setting us on a collision course with nature. When it becomes clear that growth cannot continue, the ramifications can be sudden and severe. So my focus is more on averting the chaos of economic/resource/agriculture/distribution collapse, which stands to wipe out much of what we have accomplished in the fossil fuel age. To the extent that climate change and resource limits are both served by a deliberate and aggressive transition away from fossil fuels, I see a natural alliance. Will it be enough to avert disaster (in climate or human welfare)? Who can know - but I vote that we try real hard. *** On that note, it deserves mention that the 40th anniversary of the hugely influential Limits to Growth book recently passed us by, with virtually no coverage of it in the mainstream press. A symposium was held earlier this month at the Smithsonian, which "addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet." It would be slightly less difficult if these challenges were treated by progressive/green media types in a larger context, instead of being so narrowly framed around climate change. For instance, a consortium of journalistic outlets participates in a project called Climate Desk. This collaborative venture, which just retooled its website, defines its objective thusly:

Climate change is one of the defining stories of our time: rising sea levels, bigger storms, peak oil, colder winters and hotter summers. That begs the questions: why aren't we talking about it more, and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Sure, climate change seems on track to be one of the defining stories of our time. But is it a bigger story than resource depletion or unsustainable development, which I would argue speak to the underlying reasons for rising greenhouse gases? If so, then it would seem that a project like Climate Desk is merely reporting on the symptoms of a larger problem. That makes me think that the "what the hell are we going to do about it" question is best served by addressing the causes of climate change, not the symptoms. Maybe next time the Climate Desk gets revamped, it'll get a new name that reflects the defining challenge of our time: How to chart a sustainable course for the planet without restraining economic growth.

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