Understanding Climate Change and Sustainability

Perhaps the most eminent climate scientist at Columbia University is Wallace S. Broecker, who everyone around here calls Wally. He and science writer Robert Kunzig have just published a wonderful and easy to read book entitled: “Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat—And How to Counter It”. Both Wally and our engineering colleague Klaus Lackner concede that we have already emitted too much carbon dioxide (CO2) to prevent global warming and we will need to learn how to capture the excess carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere and keep new CO2 from being released when we burn fossil fuels. We need to learn how to capture greenhouse gasses and then learn how to store them underground.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the “myth” of climate change from some folks who consider the science of climate to be some kind of environmental conspiracy. The fact of climate change is just that, a scientific fact. I think the problem starts when people who do not understand economics or politics propose solutions to the climate problem that are unrealistic or infeasible. Wally and Klaus have proposed a solution which is both realistic and feasible—although difficult to achieve. These are two very practical guys who understand we are not going to shut down the world’s economy to save the planet. We need to figure out a path to sustainability that relies on technology and enlightened self interest to preserve the planet.

The fundamental fact about the planet earth these days is that we are making more people and we are not making more planet. We have discovered that technology and creativity allow us to be more efficient in our use of the planet’s resources. There is enough water, food, space and energy for everyone if we learn how to do a better job of recycling our finite resources and making more use of renewable resources.

If you don’t think there are more people on the planet then ever, check out the U.S. Census’ world population clock. At 7:37 A.M. on June 1, the clock estimated a world population of: 6,671,377,329. By 7:47 A.M there were 6,671,378,797 people. In ten minutes we added nearly fifteen hundred people to the planet. Last year, on July 1, we had 6,600,411,051 people on Earth On July 1, 2008 we will have about 6,677,602,292. In one year we have added over seventy five million people. When I was born in 1953, the planet had 2,681,052,111 people, by the time I graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn in 1970 there were 3,707,183,055 of us. The good news is that the rate of increase is slowing. The bad news is that all those people need food, water, land, and air and while there is enough to go around, it won’t be sustainable unless we become much more effective stewards of this wonderful and bountiful planet.

For the people who don’t think that humans have damaged the planet, think back to when you were a kid. Remember those places you used to hike and camp 10, 15 or 25 years ago? How many of them are now strip malls or subdivisions? Let’s be serious- there is no question that humans have changed and damaged this planet. However, we have also made life better for billions of people. Civilization has made it possible for people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Is all this a good thing? I think so, but whatever my opinion is of all of this, I think the global economy, urban life and what we think of as civilization is here to stay. It is possible that we could destroy all of this in a war that uses weapons of mass destruction, but most people given the choice want the type of life most New Yorkers take for granted.

That is of course the problem with the modern environmental movement. There is this idea that the only way to save the planet is to do without: Get out of your cars, stop eating meat, shut off the lights and shut down the economy. There is of course the hypocrisy of that perspective being articulated by folks attending meetings at elite pow-wows like Davos where they have arrived in private jets or after dining in the first class cabins of the world’s airlines. It’s not surprising that people resist those ideas. People in the developing world find the environmentalist ethos of “denial” to be absurd and people in the middle class here in the west, are not buying it either.

The solution to climate change is not shutting down the world’s economy but growing it in ways that can be sustained. We need solar power, carbon capture and storage and a lot more. Here’s a scary thought: Climate change is only a sample of what is to come. Climate change is the first human-made change that is big enough and obvious enough that we have been able to identify it with today’s science. There is more to come. For many years, Columbia Ecology Professors like Shahid Naeem and Don Melnick and their colleagues throughout the world have been telling us about the unpredictable impact of the widespread destruction of species and biodiversity. To learn more about this check out a video from Professor Naeem’s recent lecture on “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Process Extinction Scenarios” currently posted on the Earth Institute’s Web site.

Here is the inescapable conclusion: We are not going to go back to the land and live in harmony with nature. We like our way of life and want to preserve it. In fact we need to bring some of the rest of the planet to a higher level of material consumption than they now enjoy. If we are going to do that we need to learn more about what we are doing to the planet and how to sustain it. Climate change is just one part of a growing and complex set of environmental issues that we face. The answer is not to “deny” the scientific facts, but figure out how to live with them.

Understanding Climate Change and Sustainability