In the build-up to and post-mortem following the Glasgow climate summit there was much talk in the press that articulated the need to control climate change in terms of “saving the planet.” Of course it’s not only press coverage that uses this expression to refer to climate change. It has become commonplace to think of the climate crisis in terms of “saving the planet.” There’s certainly great validity to interpreting the climate crisis through the lens of ecosystem destruction, but this to some degree misses an important point.
Make no mistake: Climate change is now and will continue to cause an environmental catastrophe that is devastating and profound, examples of which are too numerous to itemize. But perhaps a few salient examples help to frame the issue.
Ecosystems are now being “decoupled” – that is, natural processes that had previously been synchronized over evolutionary time are now becoming out of balance. This has perilous effects on animal and human life, which depend upon predictable occurrences in nature. Perhaps most worrying is a loss of synchrony between the life cycles of insects and plant pollinators, especially bees, since one third of the human food supply depends on pollination.
Loss of biodiversity has led to extinction rates equivalent to historical major mass extinction events.
In the meantime, some forests which had previously acted as “carbon sinks” in response to higher atmospheric CO2 (so-called “global greening”) have recently been discovered to have become carbon emitters since higher temperatures also cause increased rates of plant respiration, which releases CO2.
However, branding the climate crisis as a threat to “the planet” does not take into account the disparity between human (short term) and geological (very long term) timescales. It is this disparity that remains at the source of the branding problem with the climate crisis.
So while ecological balance is critical to healthy ecosystems, long-term recovery from disturbance is pretty much assured. For example, paleo-ecologists have determined that forest ecosystem structure in the region from Minnesota to Tennessee at the end of the last ice age was significantly different to the structure of forest ecosystems that exist today. The same species that occur today also occurred back then, although in an entirely different ecological relationship . Human-caused climate change is now producing a similar outcome – albeit on an accelerated time scale – but the point is that “the planet” recovered then and will also eventually recover from any human-caused imbalance.
To be clear, there is no question that the relatively short-term destruction to ecosystem balance caused by climate change is and will continue for some time to generate significant struggle (and in some cases outright extinction) to the world’s biota. And this indeed is tragic and unacceptable.
But to gain better traction in reaching solutions to the climate emergency then perhaps the messaging needs to change.
For one, referring to solving the climate crisis in terms of “the planet” is not likely to gain much sympathy from some dope who cares not a whit for the health of planetary ecosystems. But framing the climate crisis in terms of the future of the human race might wake up some who may otherwise delight in “owning the libs.”
Threats to human well-being are becoming more and more obvious and immediate. Most evident are the economic and human costs of sea-level rise, super droughts, increasingly destructive wildfires, and extreme weather events.
That the economic costs of adjusting to climate change (e.g. costs of adaptation and infrastructure re-building) would far out-strip the costs of climate mitigation were first outlined decades ago but to no one’s surprise landed on the deaf ears of policy makers. These economic consequences are now becoming a reality. After years of cautioning , climate change is now costing real money.
What will likely follow directly from such environmental devastation is an inevitable immigration scenario. But this will not necessarily be refugees from foreign countries. When the West Coast becomes uninhabitable because of wildfires and resultant air pollution combined with an on-going super drought, future refugees will be west coast Americans moving east. It’s already happening.
And this is to say nothing of rising fatality rates caused by heat waves, cold snaps due to aberrations in the polar vortex, the spread of tropical diseases, reduced agricultural output, and the vulnerability of the poverty-stricken.
Human survival under climate change is under threat from both environmental and economic factors. We should, therefore, frame the climate crisis not as “saving the planet” but rather in terms of “saving the human race.”
Of course, by solving the climate crisis in terms of “saving humanity” gets you “saving the planet” as a bonus.