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Climate, compost, and those plastic cups: Sustainability (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:38 PM GMT on August 14, 2011

Climate, compost, and those plastic cups: Sustainability and Climate Change (1)

This past week I was at the county fair. There were science exhibits, and a display on climate-wise gardening. There was a lot of attention to garbage; it was a zero-waste event. There was an exhibit and lecture on irrigation, with, of course, some discussion of stressed and contentious water resources. After the fair I took a one-day course on grasslands and the reclamation of prairie land. There are many places where climate and climate policy fit into this mix of small activities.

I want to start with the idea of “sustainability.” When I moved to University of Michigan in 2005, I was introduced, seriously, to the idea of sustainability. I kept asking whether or not there was an accepted, single definition of sustainability. The short answer was, “no.” If you look around you find a couple of notions that are always included in the definition of sustainability. First, there is the idea that the way that we use resources to maintain our standard of living does not preclude the ability of future generations to do the same. Second, there is the idea that all of the pieces fit together into a whole. A popular notion of sustainability is “think globally, act locally”, or conveyed by the company Seventh Generation, which strives, “To inspire a revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations.” On a whole different scale is Ceres, which “leads a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change and water scarcity.” Here are some links to definitions and discussions of sustainability: @ Washington State University, Wikipedia, Environmental Protection Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It is obvious that our climate and climate change fit into the notion of sustainability, but it is not an easy relation to understand, describe and to make actionable. More directly related to our ability to sustain ourselves are population, energy, energy consumption, and standard of living. Historically we have used easy resources, because they are easy. For many centuries we were reliant upon wood for fuel and building. We cleared forests for agriculture. During the 1800s the United States was largely deforested. It became self evident that forests and whale oil were not going to support a growing population, an industrial society, and a growing economy. (A nice history of energy, and interestingly Dolly Sods Wilderness.) These sources of energy were replaced with coal and oil. All of these sources of energy have obvious, direct environmental consequences. There are also some environmental consequences that are not quite as obvious and direct; namely, those consequences due to the release of carbon dioxide.

The wealthy economies and standard of living that followed from industrialization become the priority; hence, easy energy becomes a priority. The obvious and direct environmental consequences, ultimately, become something that we try to deal with – for example, The Clean Air Act. We seek a balance of environmental pollution and industrialization – a contentious balance. Climate change is an environmental problem that is not as obvious and not as direct. It is problem where it takes, compared with a human life, a significant amount of time for the signal of climate change, of global warming, to emerge over the natural variability that we are used to dealing with. In order to mitigate climate change through the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions our “easy” choice is to quit burning fossils fuels, but that is not an easy choice to make if we humans exercise our prerogative of pursuit of high standards of living and population growth. To address climate change requires us to look out beyond the length of our lives and to see the value that a sustainable environment will have to those who follow us.

There was a couple of years ago a paper in Nature entitled, “A safe operating space for humanity”, by Johan Rockstrom and many colleagues. Here is Figure 1 from that paper.

Figure 1: “The inner green shading represents the proposed safe operating space for nine planetary systems. The red wedges represent an estimate of the current position for each variable. The boundaries in three systems (rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle), have already been exceeded.” From “A safe operating space for humanity”, by Johan Rockstrom and many colleagues (Nature, 2009)

This figure conveys the integrated nature of sustainability on the planetary scale. An easy example to point out – climate change is, primarily, a problem of carbon dioxide emission, as is ocean acidification. Hence, from an integrated perspective, the two cannot be looked at in isolation. But looking around the circle, all of these environmental issues are related. They are all related to population, energy, consumption, standards of living and robust economies.

I started this entry, this series, with a very mundane event – being at the fair. At the fair we talked about water, and sure climate change might be important to water, but it does not seem as immediately important as the cities’ thirst for water and the purchase of agricultural water rights (Thirsty Cities, Dry Farms). This interface of climate change on this local level is real, it is contentious, and it is substantive. Yes, I have started another series, and in it I will look at “think globally, act locally.” Yet another problem of many scales that must be addressed as we adapt to global warming.


Climate Change Sustainability

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.