This week I’m sharing my favorite essay from my environmental senior capstone seminar.
Human-induced climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet and has devastating consequences for all systems and organisms. About 262 million people were affected by climate disasters in 2004 alone, and more than 98% of them were in developing countries (Gould, 2016). These countries have the least access to resources to alleviate the burdens, and most importantly, are the least responsible for causing the crises. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing at an accelerating rate (IPCCa, 2014). Population growth and economic output growth are the biggest drivers of these emissions (IPCCa, 2014). If we continue to follow the Business as Usual approach, emissions will continue to grow since populations and economic output will skyrocket as more countries continue to develop. If the goal is to keep Earth’s atmosphere from warming more than 2ºC, then we need to act rapidly. Currently the atmosphere has warmed less than 1.5ºC, and climate change is happening now. Already we are confronted with sea level rise, crop yield decrease, more frequent and destructive weather patterns, growing species extinction rates, increased ocean acidification, rising surface temperature, etc. (IPCCb, 2014). In order to mitigate these impacts we need to implement widespread changes in the economic sector, cultural behaviors, and energy sources to reduce our impact on Earth and prevent future devastation.
There are a number of economic changes that need to occur before we leave behind the Business as Usual approach. First economists need to realize that the neoclassical framework of thinking of the economy as the whole, rather than as a part, is flawed (Daly and Farley, 2011). We physically cannot grow beyond the borders of the environment and so we need to put into place measures to protect it. Conventionally, the environment is relegated to a part of the economy, and is only used for resource extraction and waste disposal (Daly and Farley, 2011). However, this rationale is not sustainable because eventually we will deplete all the available resources during production consumption, and run out of waste disposal space as a result of increased output (Daley and Farley, 2011). If the environment is considered the whole and the economy is a part, there is then an optimal scale for the economy. To preserve the health and wealth of the environment in which we live, we must not go beyond that limit (Daley and Farley, 2011). Shifting the thinking of economists is a key first step because they heavily influence policy decisions. Policy written by those who think infinite growth is realistic will not include environmental protection measures. In this line of thinking, growth via resource extraction and waste disposal are more important than conservation. Once policymakers take an ecological economic approach and consider the environment to be the whole, more measures will be put into place to conserve ecosystem resources and services (Daly and Farley, 2011). Economic growth measures cannot trump our necessity of physical space on which to live.
Another economic shift that needs to occur is the idea that growth is always beneficial and desired. According to the neoclassic theory, the economy is the whole so growth of the economy is always considered positive. Economic growth typically leads to increased levels of resource consumption and waste generation (Daly and Farley, 2011). In this framework, growth “decreases the scarcity of everything” and is consequently always advantageous (Daly and Farley, 2011). However, many of Earth’s resources are finite – fossil fuels, minerals, water, land, etc. We cannot grow beyond our capacity and we already may be close to reaching it (Crist, 2013). If the environment is the whole, then infinite quantitative growth of the economy is impossible (Daly and Farley, 2011). McKibben (2014) states that as a nation’s GDP increases, subsequent increases in happiness do not follow past the point where basic needs are met. If all this growth is so good, why isn’t it making us happier? Why do we pursue relentless growth if it is not making us better off? Improved quality of life should be the end goal, not ever-increasing efficiency (McKibben, 2014). As the environment degrades around us, we are certain to have a decreased quality of life.
Change in pricing – shift away from artificially low prices that don’t account for ecosystem costs. If industries took this inherent value into account, their products would no longer have artificially low prices as the true cost would be reflected, leading to decreased demand, and less deforestation/pollution/soil depletion/etc.
As deep ecologist Gary Snyder stated, “If the human race were to survive at the expense of many plant and animal species, it would be no victory” (Crist, 2013). Humans have a very anthropocentric view and place a higher emphasis on our lives over any other organisms (Crist, 2013). Thus, while species extinction caused by climate change or human impacts is certainly tragic, it does not always spur us into action to prevent it from happening to another species. We need to increase our capacity for caring about other species in order to fight climate change because they are suffering along with us (Crist, 2013). Humans tend to dominate nature as part of the “civilization process” and relegate it to being useful only if it suits our needs (Crist, 2013). However, I would argue that ecosystems and organism have their own intrinsic value. They deserve to be accounted for when making decisions about resource extraction and waste disposal.
Shift away from materialistic culture, fast fashion, following every-changing trends, house size increasing while family size decreases.
Energy Source Changes
The global dependency on nonrenewable energy sources, mostly oil, natural gas, and coal, cannot continue in conjunction with climate change mitigation. We need to reduce our hydrocarbon usage because CO2 and CH4 are huge drivers of climate change. The two greenhouse gases are a direct result of fossil fuel usage, as well as other human-driven and natural processes. McKibben (2016) recommends that we should not drill any new oil fields, dig any more coalmines or build any new pipelines if we want to prevent the earth from warming more than 2ºC. The known hydrocarbon reserve estimations contain five times more carbon than we can burn if we want to meet the 2ºC goal (McKibben, 2016). Thus, he recommends a “managed decline” in fossil fuel extraction and a shift to renewable energy. Scientists have predicted that globally, we can release 800 gigatons more of CO2 and still stay under the 2ºC rise (McKibben, 2016). The hydrocarbon reserves in current production contain 942 gigatons of CO2, so the managed decline needs to start immediately and rapidly shift to renewable energy.
Switching to renewables has several benefits – energy costs would be zero once the equipment is installed, pollution would markedly decline, and jobs would be created that would mostly negate the jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector (Jacobson et al., 2013). When externality costs (such as air pollution, coastline loss, human heat stress mortality, increases in severe weather) are taken into consideration, wind, water, and solar technologies cost less than conventional fuels (Jacobson et al., 2013). In the New York, already installed renewables cost slightly less than fossil fuels, even when externalities are ignored (Jacobson et al. 2013). If the costs of renewables are the same or less as fossil fuels, and as fossil fuel resources become depleted, it makes economic sense to invest in wind turbines and solar photovoltaic cells.
Switching to renewable energy sources would significantly reduce air pollution related deaths, as well as stimulate job creation. Coal emits huge volumes of SOx and NOx particles that are extremely hazardous to human health and are a large contributor to air pollution. Around 75,000 deaths a year in the United States are attributed to air pollution alone (Jacobson et al., 2013). To lessen the severity of job losses, training programs can retrain workers in the fossil fuel industry to build solar panels and wind turbines (McKibben, 2016). Jacobson et al. (2013) states that in New York, jobs created would actually exceed jobs lost. Using renewable energy technologies would increase the jobs available. There are some shortcomings to renewable energy, mostly the high upfront cost in building new capital, but the benefits outweigh disadvantages especially when the devastating climate change and public health crises are at stake.
Implementation of Changes
Realistically, I think that only gradual changes in the adoption of increased environmentalist techniques will succeed. It takes time for cultural shifts to occur and for businesses to adopt more sustainable practices that tend to have large upfront costs. Natural disasters are increasing in severity and quantity (IPCCb, 2014), but unless a catastrophe occurs, I do not think the US population would be willing to suddenly and radically shift practices. I also would not advocate for an abrupt, transformational approach for policies that restrict or try to reform the behaviors of the public. These policy changes would alienate people from supporting the cause and encourage resentment, which would then lead to a lack of participation. However, I do think there should be more rapid changes in compliance policies for businesses. They need ensure they sustainably and humanely source inputs, reduce “leaks” in regards to energy and material in the supply chain, and responsibly handle waste outputs. All of the approaches I have suggested require time to implement and time for public acceptance. They could not occur overnight. Thus, while my suggestions could be executed more swiftly than what is currently happening, I do think incremental change is the only feasible option for lasting environmental conservation.
The changes I have outlined are only some possible recommendations that could prevent further environmental destruction and reduction of greenhouse gas emission. They are not the only ones that need to be executed in order for us to control the 2ºC warming, but they do represent a serious change in attitude and behavior that is the foundation to making actual changes in business practice and policies. First and foremost, we need to change how we think about the environment and. the economy, and how that influences many of the decisions policymakers enact. As the public becomes educated in these matters and increases its demand for energy efficient goods and pressures elected officials to make conservation a priority, real change can and will occur. There are many opportunities for change, and technology will lead the way as we develop more energy efficient products and techniques. We cannot continue with Business As Usual because it is clearly not working and causing a lot of damage. It is impractical and inefficient to not implement changes that would help conserve the ecosystem services upon which we rely and have no other alternative. We have to modify our practices so that humans and other organisms can continue to inhabit this planet. As Bill McKibben (2016) said, “What’s unrealistic is to imagine that we can somehow escape the inexorable calculus of climate change.”
Crist, Eileen. 2013. “On the Poverty of Nomenclature.” Environmental Humanities 3: 127-143.
Daly, Herman and Joshua Farley. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (2nd edition). Island Press, 2011.
Gould, Carol. 2016. Video: “Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?” http://www.humansandnature.org/democracy-carol-gould#sb=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMPHLcBpj4o
- IPCC. 2014. Video: “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.” http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/multimedia.shtml
- IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. Summary for Policymakers.
Jacobson, Mark Z., Robert W. Howarth, Mark A. Delucchi, Stan R. Scobie, Jannette M. Barth, Michael J. Dvorak, Megan Klevze, Hind Katkhuda, Brian Miranda, Navid A. Chowdhury, Rick Jones, Larsen Plano, and Anthony R. Ingraffea. 2013. “Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight.” Energy Policy 51: p. 585-601.
McKibben, Bill. 2014. “After Growth.” In Deep Economy (New York, Henry Holt & Company), p. 5-45.
McKibben, Bill. 2016. “Recalculating the Climate Math: The New Numbers Are Scarier Than We Thought.” The New Republic, November 2016, 247:11, p. 16-17.