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Climate Change: The Wrong Top Priority for Environmentalists and Conservation Professionals

You read that headline right, so let’s start with a disclaimer: Climate change is one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. Only idiots, ignorami, and certain categories of the insane dismiss the abundant science pointing to climate change, its causes, and its ongoing and future effects.

To stave off a pack of strawman-hungry wolves, let’s double down on the disclaiming: Climate change is an issue that warrants substantial attention. The crux of the matter is how much to prioritize it. Priorities have to be balanced, and the current balance is way out of kilter.

Environmental organizations and conservation agencies took a big gamble by putting all their beans in the top-priority pot. Yes, the perils of climate change are profound. And it’s true that planning for climate change is politically feasible, finally. The level of acceptance is “good enough for gubment work,” in the case of state and federal agencies. The same can be said for coffee-table conservation outfits like the National Wildlife Federation. Public acceptance of climate change is high enough to “work it.” Budgets can be built around climate change. Funding can be found and grants can be grabbed without a lot of political savvy or guts. Everybody can get credit for trying to save the world without having to deal with the harsh realities of what that really takes.

Some legitimate credit belongs to those who thought prioritizing climate change might unify an environmental conservation community that has long divided its efforts among such issues as clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife conservation, and wilderness preservation. The “envirocons,” to loosely lump all the environmental and conservation activists and professionals, have seldom reached critical mass to make a substantial difference in domestic policy. Some think climate change will rewrite the calculus of environmental politics by providing a unified front issue.

So what exactly is wrong with making climate change the top priority? First, although the political correctness of climate change is good enough for gubment work — that is, muddling around in the bureaucracy — it’s nowhere near high enough for effective law-making, and may never be. That’s because climate change is two degrees removed from the known reality of too many Americans. It’s not like the simple problem of overhunting during the early 20th century, when the passenger pigeon went extinct. Everybody saw it, either directly or in the papers. Laws were passed and the problem was solved, at least for the remaining species.

The next major conservation problem of the 20th century was habitat loss. Again it was easy to see: the bulldozers came and the wetlands were drained, forests were cleared, prairies were plowed, etc. The ducks and geese, most noticeably, disappeared from vast areas. Hunters (a much more prominent segment of society at the time), birdwatchers, and nature lovers in general got mad and lots of others were concerned. Laws were passed to keep the bulldozers out of the wetlands. The problem was solved, at least for the remaining wetlands, and to the extent the laws were upheld.

Climate change is different, and how. You might see its effects and sense it happening, but you don’t see climate change itself. And no matter how much you think you know about climate change, it requires dealing with a lot of uncertainty. You may have seen a hurricane, but was it caused by climate change? Maybe? To what degree? Prove it.

Even for those who can drink uncertainty with a fire hose, climate change requires connecting some challenging dots. It’s at least a two-step dance with an unwelcome partner. Step one is acknowledging that the climate is changing, and changing more rapidly than it normally might, whatever “normally” should mean. Just enough folks have taken this first step to put climate change on the political map.

But then comes step two, the connection of this abnormal pace of climate change to human economic activity. Now you’re messin’ with some minds. For starters, there are those who simply have a difficult time understanding the concepts, and don’t feel like making the effort to begin with. While the greenhouse gas effect is simple enough, and greenhouse gases readily identified, the combinations and permutations of causes and effects are complicated enough to lose readers by the score. Not everyone finds this stuff interesting, either. Americans love NASCAR and the Super Bowl, and find their news-hour attention riveted to mass shootings at home, terrorist activities overseas, and the latest scandal wherever. Who’s got time to read about emissions scenarios and climate modeling?

Then you’ve got the “religious wrong” preaching from evangelical pulpits that puny little man — proverbial dust in the wind — could never have an effect on God’s own climate. (Why only those godless liberals could offend God with such hubris!) We’re not talking about a handful of kooks here; the collective anti-science, anti-sustainability, holier-than-thou congregation is big enough to keep mean-spirited know-it-alls like Rush Limbaugh in business.

Then you have the millions who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. They’re a slightly more “sophisticated” crowd and more left-leaning than right. They haven’t been snowed by some pass-the-plate preacher at the big-box church, but by secular Big Money itself. Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and their parades of politicians have been selling the public a bill of goods for decades. Starting no later than with Ronald Reagan, economic growth was supposed to be unlimited, and if we really wanted to protect the environment, or the climate, all we needed to do was grow the economy. That way we’d have enough money to throw at the problem.

This cultural landscape of very odd bedfellows is like a minefield separating climate change talk from action. (And then, if we make it through the minefield, what action do we take?)

And what about all the regular old environmental issues we felt were so urgent before we prioritized climate change? Like clean air and water, wildlife conservation, wilderness preservation, soil conservation, invasive species, Superfund, the ozone layer, green space, threatened and endangered species, environmental quality and ecological integrity at large? We were already scrambling for scraps of funding for these issues, and now the collective scraps have been taken away to feed all the climate change research, modeling, planning, and a heavy load of education and outreach.

So then what should we prioritize to unify the envirocons and save the world? It should be obvious. The natural progression from market hunting to habitat loss was also a progression from a microeconomic issue to a meta-economic issue. The next stage in this progression is to the macroeconomic issue of economic growth. As the bumper sticker says, “Growing the economy is shrinking the planet.”

This isn’t the article to go into detail on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Numerous authors have described that conflict in impeccable detail. Probably one paragraph is in order, though…

Economic growth means a lot more than all the good things we hear about it in the news. It’s not a gravy train or a silver bullet. To put it in dispassionate terms, economic growth means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. Economic growth means a growing population and/or growing per capita consumption (aka “affluence”). It means growing GDP. It means environmental impact. It’s the underlying, overarching, all-encompassing cause behind virtually every environmental problem you can think of, including climate change in a fossil-fueled economy. Meanwhile society falls asleep to the tune of “green-growth” lullabies. The notion of replacing those powerful hydrocarbons with “clean” fuels to support ever-growing GDP is a dream, alright. It’s the kind of dream that turns into a nightmare as the realization hits that pulling out all the stops for economic growth is a handcart to hell.

Climate change is harder spot than the troubles of an overgrown economy.

It’s tough to spot the elevated levels of greenhouse gases on the left; it’s easier to spot the trouble with runaway growth on the right.

With one paragraph on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, the common sense should be engaged. Common sense can probably give you an inkling of the corruption of economics, too, and why economists on Wall Street and in the Fed tell you only about the benefits of economic growth without mentioning the costs, despite the fact that the costs are now exceeding the benefits for most Americans — and for virtually all their grandkids.

With the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection left to your common sense or further reading elsewhere, what’s left of this article should focus our attention on the properties of economic growth as a viable issue for government agencies as well as for NGO priorities and eventually public policy. At least five key properties separate economic growth from climate change.

First, just like market hunting and habitat loss — and unlike climate change — economic growth is readily observable. Look around you and wherever you see an environmental problem, note the cause. It’s not a mystery. It’s “human activity” as some like to say, but even that is an inadequate phrase, lacking policy implications. Humans and their activities should not be made to sound like a blight on the planet. It’s not spiritual activity, or family activity, or civic activity that threatens our water supplies, endangers other species, and changes our climate. To be precise, it’s human economic activity: the energy sector, agriculture, natural resource extraction, manufacturing, services. All the sectors — every single one of them in an integrated economy — plus all the infrastructure (roads, power lines, dams, etc.), plus the byproducts (pollutants including greenhouse gases) and incidental effects including climate change.

Second, economic growth can serve as an even better unifying front issue than climate change. Climate change doesn’t cause all other environmental problems or the vast majority of conservation challenges. Economic growth does. All those issues faced by envirocons prior to climate change were being caused by an increasing population and its economic activities. Now we can add climate change to that list of the effects of a constantly growing human economy. Fix the growth problem, and you go a long way toward fixing the climate change problem. Mountain-top removal and Keystone pipelines wouldn’t be so tempting if we weren’t hell-bent on GDP growth.

Third, economic growth is already entrenched in the American lexicon. The phrase itself elicits no immediate backlash from the pulpit, Wall Street, or conservative radio shows and politicians. Economic growth is expected to be in the news every day. It’s a welcome topic. Now when the dialog starts, with the rest of the story about the problems caused by economic growth, debate will begin of course. But that’s exactly what we need. At least economic growth is not a non-starter, as climate change is in many circles.

Fourth, when it comes to really doing something, economic growth can be dealt with immediately at a fully developed policy table. It’s not like climate change where plenty of well-intentioned effort has manufactured almost no policy machinery. No new conventions or treaties are needed for real effects on the rate of economic growth. At the economic policy table, fiscal, monetary, and trade policy is already being crafted, but always in pursuit of growth. This policy table is set and waiting for chairs to be occupied by experts better-informed than the usual lineup of Chicago School economists.

The need for well-rounded expertise at the economic policy table points to an immediate role for environmental bureaucrats and political appointees at the highest levels. For every economist from the Council of Economic Advisors, there should be an EPA administrator or conservation agency director explaining the costs of further growth. We need a long-overdue and ongoing discussion about the conflict between economic growth and: 1) environmental protection, 2) economic sustainability, 3) national security, and 4) international stability. Then lawmakers and presidents can make informed decisions about balancing economic and other goals. Hopefully in the coming decades we’ll be pursuing the establishment of a sustainable, steady state economy rather than unsustainable and increasingly destructive economic growth.

Fifth, addressing the threat of economic growth is a far more practical alternative than the wishful thinking about climate change action. This is easy to understand, but only when we remember that practicality is not a concept reserved for politics. Just because the acceptance of climate change is good enough for gubment work doesn’t make climate change a practical matter for spending taxpayer money or NGO dues on. Prioritizing climate change is like chopping at kudzu leaves instead of the roots. It’s not going to do a significant bit of good as long as the overriding policy goal is economic growth.

In short, climate change is the wrong issue for environmentalists and conservation professionals to collectively prioritize above all others. While climate change is a legitimate threat, prioritizing climate change was driven largely by (relative) political convenience and the constant jockeying for agency funding, NGO membership dues, and foundation grants. Meanwhile the failure to prioritize economic growth, the mother of 21st century threats, is driven by shallow political thinking and the personal interests of “leaders” getting paid the big bucks at the heads of conservation agencies and environmental NGOs.

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