What is more important today: sustainability or climate change? The question poses a practical dilemma. Sustainability is a much more embracing concept than climate change, incorporating concerns beyond the environment to economic health and social equity. Climate change impacts all three dimensions, but sustainability would extend much further in each of them.
Even so, I think that attention to climate change today is more urgent. One reason is that the latest science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/) has captured global attention. Among other things, it documents the growing numbers of climate-related weather disasters that are focusing local attention in many parts of the world. Another reason to act on climate now is that addressing climate change is easier!
To address climate change, all we must do is decarbonize the global economy. To make that economy sustainable requires much more comprehensive changes, such as minimizing resource extraction, stabilizing population, and reducing gross economic inequality. This post begins with climate and the accumulating damages from climate change. Subsequent posts will further discuss climate change and then turn successively to the broader issues of sustainability.
A few scientists realized more than a century ago that accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere might warm the global climate. It took accelerating fossil fuel burning until roughly the year 2000 for the predicted warming to begin to exceed natural climate variability. Warming has continued, with every year from 2014 to 2020 ranking within the seven warmest years in the instrumental record and 44 consecutive years exceeding the 20th century average. No natural variation can explain such a trend; scientific understanding of “heat-trapping” by greenhouse gases such as CO2 predicted it.
After two hundred years of economic development based on the great abundance and low price of fossil fuels, we must stop using them. If we do not, the consequences for humankind and for life on earth will be catastrophic. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next year.
Or, after all, maybe it will be next year. Not everywhere next year. Disasters did not occur everywhere in 2020, but the global number of billion-dollar weather disasters set a record of 50. The events were dreadful in California, along U.S. Gulf Coast, in New South Wales, in Honduras, and in multiple Asian countries. In 2021, the climate bulls-eyes mostly are in other places. They do not yet include my home in Durango, Colorado, where the 22nd year of a megadrought has primed the surrounding forest for wildfire. In 2022, somewhere else again. The rising trend of weather disasters will continue, with accumulating disruption of the environment, the economy, and the social fabric, until and even after humankind kicks the fossil fuel habit.
As with most addictions, giving up fossil fuels will be neither easy nor sudden. However, it must happen for our health and that of Mother Earth.