• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


New name, new frame

David Roberts at Grist recently posted a good, if not entirely earth-shaking, analysis titled "Two reasons climate change is not like other environmental problems".  His main points are that carbon dioxide -- the main greenhouse gas -- is not like other air pollutants in that it tends to persist, and that changes to climate -- once they take effect -- are effectively irreversible in any timeframe relevant to human experience.

March 21, 2013

David Roberts at Grist recently posted a good, if not entirely earth-shaking, analysis titled "Two reasons climate change is not like other environmental problems".  His main points are that carbon dioxide -- the main greenhouse gas -- is not like other air pollutants in that it tends to persist, and that changes to climate -- once they take effect -- are effectively irreversible in any timeframe relevant to human experience. 

My first reaction upon reading Roberts's piece was that he was understating both points. 

  • Carbon dioxide not only persists for 100 years or so, it's also unlike other air pollutants in that its damaging effects are not immediately apparent.  Breathe the air downwind of an uncontrolled coal fire, and the black soot will be immediately obvious.  Burn high-sulfur coal and the rain downwind will become acidic (and its effects apparent on trees, fish and automobiles) very quickly.  Loose a lot of carbon dioxide into the air, and you won't measurably effect the temperature of the ground or the air for up to 40 years for a variety of reasons.  If either soot or acid rain took 40 years to become evident, we probably wouldn't have addressed either of those problems, just like we haven't addressed GHG emissions in any meaningful manner.
  • Climate change not only resists reversal, it self-reinforces.  Roberts uses the time-honored analogy of a bathtub with water flowing in and out to demonstrate the systems concept of flows and stores (in GHG terms, emissions and atmospheric concentrations).  What he doesn't explain is that  if we attempt to extend that bathtub metaphor, we have to show some sort of Rube Goldberg-esque connecting mechanism so that as the bathtub fills and gets heavier a pulley arrangement opens the valve on the input flow and simultaneously chokes down the output flow -- water comes in ever faster and leaves ever slower, so the rate of rise increases exponentially.  Again through a variety of mechanisms, climate change is like that -- the more the troposphere and the surface of the planet warm, the more greenhouse gases are released and the fewer are absorbed.  Time is not our friend, at least not currently.

Now I can certainly understand why, in a single column of finite length, certain complexities need to be edited out.  Roberts's opening paragraph states that most people don't understand climate change very well; his tactical decision was surely that ignorance can only be dispelled one step at a time, and that an oversimplified explanation is better than an over-complex one.  Hard to argue with that, of course.

What I do argue with, however, is the presumption that climate change is an environmental problem.  I know that it's primarily been presented in those terms, and it's been filed by politicians and institutes of higher education in the "environmental" portfolio, and most of us who try to attain sustainability in some degree started from an understanding of sustainability as the mitigation of climate change, and climate change as a problem of/with the environment.  But as I (and a number of other sustainability wonks) have come to recognize over the years, sustainability is not just about avoiding catastrophic climate change -- it's about avoiding (at least at the catastrophic level) all of the current trends which have potential to cripple society as we know it.  And even climate change isn't an environmental problem -- it's the environmental symptom set resulting from a social problem. 

Let me try to explain that last point.  How we characterize problems significantly effects how we think about them.  An example: 

On my farm, some of the animals are horses.  In the spring, the horses' pastures tend to get very muddy.  Horses who stand for a long time in wet mud tend to get it packed up into the grooves on the underside of their hooves.  If (as is often the case) yeast spores are trapped against the hoof in an anaerobic environment (as is created by the mud), a fungal infection called "thrush" can result.  Now I could note that thrush in horses tends to occur in the feet, and thus I could categorize it as a "foot problem".  But that categorization might cause me to analyze thrush on the basis of what I know about other foot problems such as those caused by poor hoof trimming, insufficient biotin and other micronutrients, congenitally thin hoof walls, bad shoeing, bad leg conformation and a whole lot of other circumstances.  Calling thrush a "foot problem" tells me nothing about it that I didn't already know -- that the infection is on the bottom end of the horse.  The real problem, and one that's obscured by that particular categorization, is one of pasture drainage.  The problem isn't with the foot (although that's where it's experienced), it's with the pasture.  And the mud.  And the water.

Climate change isn't the result of a problem with the environment.  It's the result of a problem with the behaviors of people.  Lots of people.  Collective behaviors.  Social norms and values.  It's a profoundly societal problem, and it can only be solved by addressing it profoundly at the societal level.

Since coming to this realization, I've been reading less in the way of environmental science, and more books which look at society from a systems perspective.  As it happens, I stumbled upon a trio of truly great paragraphs in one of those just this morning; the paragraphs may have given me (us?) a new way to frame issues of sustainability in such manner that they can (will?) be addressable more effectively.  The book is "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution", by Andrew Bard Schmookler.  Published in 1995, it's not about sustainability -- or, more accurately, it's not about what we most often currently mean by the term "sustainability".  It is, however, a meta-analysis not so much of the climate change problem as of how we (society, societies) got ourselves into this mess.  The passage in question appears on pages 216-217 of the second edition:

A system can be defined as an aggregate the elements of which interact.  Because of these interactions, no element of the system can be entirely understood in isolation.  Each element is a part of a larger whole.  For example, the movement of the earth can be understood not in terms of the earth alone but only in the light of the earth's place in the solar system.  (Indeed, as the solar system itself moves in ways dictated by its place in the galaxy ...)...

With a system of living things, it is possible to speak of the welfare of the different parts.  According to the way the interaction within such a system is organized, the welfare of the parts may be served well or ill.  The optimal pattern of interaction is synergistic, that is, one in which each part functions in a way that enhances the welfare of the other parts as well as its own.  The term for synergy we use in speaking of human affairs is "cooperation." . . . The absence of synergy is exemplified by the zero-sum game. . . . In some interactions, the sum is less than zero, as in the panic of people in a theater on fire, where the actions of each trying to serve his own needs add up to a disaster for all.  The opposite of a synergistic system is a corrupt [emphasis in the original] one.  Corruption characterizes a system to the extent that parts of the system seek or serve their own interests at the expense of the overall well-being of the system.


[A] dimension of wholeness -- viability -- characterizes a living system to the extent that it is able to maintain without diminution whatever it is upon which its continued existence depends.  Viability requires, therefore, a balance between input and output: a viable system must either replace an equal portion of what it uses or it must reuse indefinitely what is not replaced. . . . In addition to having to maintain the availability of what it needs, a viable system must also not accumulate what is toxic to its well-being.  . . . The opposite of a viable system is a decadent one, one that lives beyond its means and destroys the conditions for its healthy continuation.

Nothing there explicitly about 'sustainability', or greenhouse gases, or climate change.  And yet, everything about all those topics.  Clear.  Concise.  Useful terminology like viable, cooperation, corruption, decadence.  And an appropriate societal context in which to apply them.  Liberally.  To achieve inherently conservative goals.




Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top