On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein asked, “What is the answer?” When no reply was forthcoming, she rephrased her dying words to: “Okay, then, what is the question?”
In my experience, good answers are the products of good questions. Over the past number of years, I have begun to doubt the efficacy of the question being debated by climate change stakeholders. There’s a lot riding on the current negotiations—the hope is that the end product of the December 2015 United Nations (UN) conference in Paris will be a definitive, enforceable treaty that achieves the desired outcome of a global reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Oddly, my concern is not that an accord will once again prove elusive, but that in fact it will be reached. I realize that for someone who has been a clean energy and environmental advocate for more than 30 years, my current concern is, to say the least, ironic.
It is not that I doubt the necessity or importance of reducing GHG emissions, particularly carbon. My concern is that the accord will be crafted to answer the question—how do we slow or stop GHG emissions as quickly as possible? It is a question that no longer addresses the central issue which must be addressed. If the UN negotiations focus on an incomplete question, the resulting accord will be more palliative than curative.
What I am proposing is in principle quite simple—immediate, widespread collaborative actions that cut across disciplines, organizational missions, and ideological divides. I am also urging that the hard decisions be made in the near term and not deferred. Delaying decision-making or implementation for years deprives the world of its most valuable asset in responding to catastrophic environmental change—time!
The question, therefore, is how to create in the near term an operating global accord that can marshal the considerable resources of the public and private sectors to devise and deploy collective actions at a scale and within the timeframe needed to ensure an environmentally and socially resilient world in which individual and community health and well-being is possible?
Defining the Desired Outcomes
To frame and answer the question, I approach the matter from three directions. First is articulating the question based upon a realistic vision of the future, i.e. climate change is having negative impacts like long periods of droughts and severe storms and we must be prepared in advance to respond to them. Second is suggesting strategies for achieving the desired outcome through collaboration, e.g. organizations that improve access to medical care must pair their work with organizations that work to increase food supplies for growing and longer-lived populations. Third is dismissing the blame game. The fact is the climate is changing both naturally and because of anthropogenic activities. We need to respond to it on a global scale not to assign blame.
Environmental changes caused by climate change have already been set in motion and must be addressed. Other impactful changes have also begun—for example, exponential population growth and reductions in depletable natural resources like gold and potassium used in manufacturing, agriculture, etc. Having begun, they too require our immediate attention.
The light some see at the end of the tunnel as the possibility of a global climate treaty comes closer to reality is—in my opinion—another train. And the time to avoid a disastrous collision is now.
The need is for an integrated response strategy. A strategy aided by government action but not solely dependent upon it; a strategy that—with enough social pressure—can stimulate a more rapid evolutionary change in meeting the broad environmental challenges; a strategy that calls upon all of us to leave our silos of proffered solutions and find ways to weave them into coordinated programs that can turn adversity into opportunity.
Asking the right questions is key to finding the right answers. A good question—or series of questions—in a policy context must be specifically linked to desired outcomes. The clearer and more specific the vision of the outcomes, the better the questions; the better the questions, the greater the likelihood of getting to useful, deployable and relevant answers. In the case of environmental change, the desired overall outcome is achieving global economic and social progress in the context of climate changes that present significant impediments threatening the health of the planet.
Although the passage of a climate accord later this year is important to the future of the planet, in its present form it is not “the” question that must be answered to achieve the broad outcome of continued, sustainable, resilient socioeconomic progress.
An agreement reached in 2015 would not take effect until at least 2020 to give the signatory nations time to ratify it. Only after ratification would implementation presumably begin in earnest. And given the politics in some nations—the United States, for example—it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a number of the most influential nations will never approve it.
Moreover, the threat to Earth’s future is more than just the matter of harmful emissions. It is also the result of a host of other occurrences that place untold stress on natural resources. Examples include water scarcity; an exponential growth in world population; the loss of arable land for food production; and the depletion of essential minerals and metals.
This is not to say there hasn’t been progress, because there has. Consider, for example, the reduced costs and broad deployment of solar energy, recognition by major private sector companies of the importance of sustainable practices, a growing trend towards social investing by the private sector coupled with increasing institutional divestment of fossil fuel companies from their portfolios, breakthroughs in technology, etc. However, in the larger scheme of things and at their current rate of market penetration they are not likely to keep ahead of the march towards environmental disaster.
It is here that I believe that the words “resilient” and “sustainable” must be conjoined in any strategy designed to realistically address the climate challenge. Often used interchangeably, they represent two very different concepts and, as a consequence, imply the need for different but compatible sets of answers.
Sustainable implies a static state of more or less known dimensions. As currently used, sustainable implies a healthier, more prosperous, and less conflicted world than today but one that is otherwise pretty much unchanged in its global view.
As commonly defined in the literature, however, “resilience is not just the ability to bounce back quickly from a disruption. Rather … [it is] the capacity for a system to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change and uncertainty.” These are the very types of interconnected environmental, sociological, financial, and political uncertainties that threaten today’s world. Sustainability carries with it a sense of certainty based on what was, while resiliency implies preparing for the unknown and what is to be. A resilient world implies a sustainable one; it is not at all clear that the opposite is true.
Resiliency is a strategic concept that defends society against misfortune, thereby sustaining it, but approaches crisis planning as an opportunity for the development of new economic and technological approaches to continued global progress. For example, knowing that severe storms often knock out the central power grid should lead decision-makers to mandate the creation of distributed generation systems like mini- or microgrids in strategic geographic zones such as where hospitals or emergency centers are located. Distributed energy systems that include storage systems can feed into the grid during normal times, while remaining operational during times of crisis.
Similarly, if, as is the current case in California and other areas throughout the world, drought becomes the long-term problem it promises to be, then this knowledge should lead today to policies, programs, and investments supporting innovative solutions, such as more efficient irrigations systems, modern infrastructure, the development of drought-resistant crops, hydroponic farming in urban and rural areas that use grey water, and development of less water-intensive industrial and agricultural processes and products. By nature, a good resiliency plan presents a crosscutting strategy focusing on multiple vulnerabilities and ways to combat them that are both defensive and offensive.
Good resiliency plans accommodate varying circumstances and the character and needs of different geographic areas and industrial sectors. Resiliency planning is a transformative approach that supports not just survival, but well-being and prosperity in a resource-limited world. Resiliency touches all facets of life from agriculture and manufacturing to social justice. A resilient world is a sustainable world in that it anticipates known dangers, is sufficiently flexible to respond quickly to unknown dangers, and is aware that some things—the coal industry, water-intensive industrial processes, reconstruction in flood plains, or even the lowly incandescent lightbulb, should not be sustained.
Perhaps the most important and positive characteristic of resiliency planning is the ability to engage actors of all ideologies. Climatic crises do not distinguish between the rich or poor, old or young, liberals or conservatives. Whetherby chance, human error, conflicting ideologies, accidents, or any of a host of predictable and unpredictable occurrences, resiliency planning seeks ways to avoid, mitigate, recover, and even prosper—in the form of creating new products, services, and designs. It is the ultimate making of lemonade from lemons.
Perhaps most importantly, resiliency planning diminishes reliance upon national/global political decisionmakers and the passage of nationalized or global, top-down policies. It accomplishes this by increasing the role of community and corporate leaders, who are more proximate to the various consequences, have the greatest incentives to act in their own and their community’s interests and have the capacity to move more quickly than national or global policymakers faced with cumbersome bureaucratic rules and countervailing political pressures.
An example is the unlikely alliance of environmental groups and the Tea Party in Georgia in support of consumer choice in the deployment of solar energy. It is a phenomenon reflected currently in the climate change field as local communities have been acting, while global negotiators have been—well—negotiating (for nearly a quarter century).
Framing the right question is admittedly easier than answering it. As indicated earlier, there is no single action that will solve the problem. It is clear, however, that expanding the framework within which the answers are sought and ultimately implemented is important in defining the nature and relationships of actions required to address the problem.
The current disjunctive dialogues and the investments currently being made need to be rewoven into an integrated, flexible, and inclusive structure that can guide the public and private sectors in framing and addressing the questions. The ultimate solution is as much a matter of logistics and behavior as it is technology or legal frameworks.
Be warned, however, that the answer will not come without changing the underlying precepts of many organizations and individuals currently participating in the sustainability debate. Individually and collectively, we must develop a more collaborative perspective that includes all elements of society. Many of the answers are already in play, such as increased adoption by the private sector of more resource efficient and environmentally sound practices; the growing number of local actions to create resilient communities through community solar projects; greater investments in resiliency; and the creation of a global carbon trading marketplace.
There will be no solution without disruption of the status quo. Powerful special interests will push back against the required change but must be defeated. Future investments must be measured, practical, and focused on creating new economic opportunities rather than salvaging old and harmful technologies.
Solutions like carbon sequestration from coal plants, for example, are little more than pandering to political opponents of sustainable energy. The result is enormous expenditures of public funds that would be better spent on deploying and improving proven and emerging clean technologies and supporting developing nations as they grow sustainable and resilient economies and infrastructures.
In this regard, I am reminded of the words of President Eisenhower:
….there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties…. development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research — these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among…programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable….
For some governmental and nongovernmental institutions, a comprehensive global framework that embraces the objectives of sustainability and resiliency will mean rebalancing their efforts. For example, they must consider the interrelationship of their objectives with the consequences of their actions. They must also work in consort with other organizations to create an integrated package of solutions.
If an organization’s mission is to improve healthcare, then it must also consider the impact it would have on the venues in which it successfully operates. Healthier, longer-lived citizens and reduced infant mortality rates require adequate and affordable food supplies, potable water, better resource efficiency, adequate infrastructure, and improved healthcare services for the elderly. Consider the impact of a successful health program on diminishing food and water supplies and the disproportionate impact of rising food costs on the poor in Central America.
Resiliency requires not simply the understanding but the practice of collaborative action. It is encouraging that efforts are being made to link resiliency and sustainability. Some examples of such efforts include:
- Cooperation of The Rockefeller Foundation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement a significant program supporting the creation of resiliency offices in 100 U.S. cities and capital support for the winners of project competitions;
- The work of the President’s State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience;
- The recently concluded UN resiliency conference in Sendai, Japan, which crafted a successor structure to the Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction and committed the participants to encouraging the inclusion of resiliency into the Paris negotiations; and
- The growing number of programs, toolkits, and Web-based and other educational programs devoted to resiliency and the need to incorporate it into sustainability planning and financing mechanisms.
Clearly the above examples and the thousands of actions being taken to increase the resiliency of communities and to reduce GHG emissions represent some battles we’re winning. Without more rapid and expanded global action, however, we remain in danger of losing the war.
Incorporating the concepts of sustainability and resiliency into an effective response to global environmental change and developing greater collaboration among organizations working towards a better world are vital to the question of Earth’s future. However, answers that go unheeded are of little value.
Therefore, an important component of the question is how to get the message of the need for rapid and integrated action effectively into the public domain? Here too, the answer is collaboration, in the form of the creation of a unified social media campaign—a “Climate Spring,” so to speak.
Through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other social networks, the reality of climate change can be used to promote a nonpartisan, non-doctrinaire message of the importance of creating resilient communities and a groundswell of support for positive, near-term action. Unlike social media campaigns of the past, however, the message of a new campaign should be simple, constant, and, most importantly, agnostic. It must be sponsored and initiated by individuals and organizations that don’t typically work together—environmental groups, clean energy organizations, private industry, financial institutions, Republicans, Democrats, pro-union, anti-union, and allied and non-allied nations. The point is to create shock and awe by demonstrating that diverse organizations of often conflicting agendas can agree that environmental change, no matter its cause, is a substantial threat that must be addressed collectively. The need to make the world a resilient place, on the other hand, is a concept around which most can rally.
Humans and Nature!
As mentioned above, much of what has prevented the needed cooperation to respond positively and at scale to the challenge of environmental change is ideologically based. The oddity of the situation is that climate change believers and deniers seem to agree that change is afoot. Their disagreement centers on whether humans are responsible and what we should be doing about it.
Based both upon experience and science, we know that climate change can prompt a vast number of seriously negative consequences—droughts, rising sea levels, the loss of flora and fauna, and massively destructive storms. We are experiencing these events in the United States and around the globe on an almost weekly basis, which makes it hard for deniers to discount the current and potential consequences of climate change. No amount of snowball tossing in the U.S. Senate chamber can change the reality of this. Of course, believers who think climate change is preventable and ultimately reversible may be equally delusional.
It is not difficult to understand that global climate change is a product of both natural and anthropogenic causes. After all, the Earth’s climate has experienced massive climatic changes before and since the presence of people. Earth’s history is replete with examples of natural epochs characterized by changing temperatures and the creation and loss of untold plant and animal species.
I have no doubt that the trillions of tons of pollutants pumped into the air and dumped on the planet combined with deforestation and other unsustainable practices have taken their toll on the environment. History and science support the conclusion that certain anthropogenic actions—including emissions of carbon and other GHGs—are significant contributors to the crisis we find ourselves in today. They also support the conclusion that cyclical environmental changes do occur “naturally.”
An example of the disastrous consequence of the conjunctive acts of nature and people is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This event offers a nearly perfect example of the impact of the catastrophic consequences of a combination of natural events and anthropogenic activities on environmental, economic, and social conditions. The causes of the Dust Bowl included the overuse of the common plow and the failure to understand the importance of native species of plants in keeping the proverbial lid on a relatively thin layer of arable land in periods of water scarcity.
The combination of natural and anthropogenic factors proved deadly to living things and devastating to a blooming economy. Yesterday’s version of “drill baby drill” could easily have been “plow baby plow.” Whether through ignorance, stupidity, denial, or greed, people in partnership with nature conspired to create an historic catastrophe.
The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal "mud balls." The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, and buried fences up to the post tops. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from "dust pneumonia." The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter.
A description of the dust storms of May 10th and 12th, 1934:
On May 10, (1934) the gales returned, this time from the west. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light-brown fog that spread over an area 900 miles wide and 1500 miles long [1,350,000 square miles]. The next day an estimated 12 million tons of soil fell on Chicago, Illinois, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland, Ohio. On May 12, dust hung like a shadow over the entire eastern seaboard. By the time they were over, these two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the Great Plains.
These accounts describe how the actions of humans and nature dramatically changed environmental conditions in the past, describe what is occurring today throughout much of the world, e.g. California and China, and foretell the future. According to a recently released report (2015) by the United Nations World Water Assessment Program, “at current usage rates, the world will have 40% less fresh water than it needs in 15 years.” The UN report’s conclusions are recognized by private industry and were echoed in a recent CNBC interview with Peter Brabeck-Letmathe of the Nestle Corporation’s water division who stated, "We have a major water management crisis….We are destroying 20 percent more water for human consumption than there is available." Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of water scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation, according to UN data. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortages. Although scientists are not prepared to lay the blame for current world drought conditions solely at the feet of anthropogenic causes, neither can the scarcity of water be divorced from human activity, including population growth.
A few recent stories are illustrative of the consequences of the current droughts:
From the St. Andrews Foreign Affairs Review, October 23, 2014 (Taylor Stenberg):
In Central America, 80-90% of the maize and bean crops failed and have left more than 2.8 million people without food. The government of Guatemala has consequently declared a state of emergency in nearly all of its regions, as 170,000 families are without crops. The issue of food security is so dramatic that India has pledged $200,000 in aid. In the rest of Central America, 120,000 families in Honduras, 100,000 in Nicaragua and 96,000 in El Salvador face food shortages. The United States has donated $10 million to the United Nations World Food Programme to address food security in the region more generally. Nicaragua’s rising food prices present the most extreme case, having quadrupled since this spring. The food shortages and rising food prices will have a profound impact on Latin America, as chronic malnutrition already presents an extreme obstacle for young children.
From The Guardian, February 25, 2014 (Jonathan Kaiman)
He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University‘s College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, said new research suggested that if the smog persists, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter….and the country’s agricultural production could be seriously affected. “Now almost every farm is caught in a smog panic," she said.
Beijing, March 2015
For the vision of a sustainably resilient future to become a reality requires recognition by all parties that the issue of greatest importance is that climate change has happened, is happening, and will happen and that delaying actions that both respond to and anticipate its consequences are much less a matter of dollars and much more a refusal to accept the breadth of the problem and the need for collaboration. Sustainable agriculture practices adopted before the middle of the country turned to dust in the 1930s could have dramatically reduced the economic impact of the Great Depression and helped preserve the wealth and well-being of millions of Americans, the nation’s banks, and precious natural resources.
In the same way, responding today to climatic and environmental changes will allow us to phase from one era to another in a way that allows the continuation and even the expansion of the world’s economies. If we can respond collectively to the dramatic changes we face without resorting to pejoratives or rigid ideological positions, we can take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the worst of the potential consequences of climate challenge we face.
If, for example, by using sustainable agricultural practices, constructing power plants that use less water, accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources, and modernizing our current energy infrastructure, we can diminish the impact of current and future droughts, where is the harm? Even if the dire predictions of today’s droughts never materialize, investments in water and energy efficiency produce jobs, increase the capacity to support growing populations, and improve our resiliency in preparation for the next event.
Should the predictions prove accurate and we fail to prepare, our options would be fewer, more costly, and very likely less effective. That is to say, the remaining responses would be more palliative than curative.
Finally, let me leave you with one last question. Do we repeat the mistakes of the past or learn from them? Whatever the answer, the choice is ours.