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Would a climate silver bullet make us sustainable?

It would be nice to fire a silver bullet at climate change to make it go away. If such munitions existed all our troubles would be over. We think not…

In the quote below, Simon Propper, CEO of Context, a sustainability strategy business in an article on fresh thinking suggests that the raft of sustainability issues are just housekeeping, the real and only issue is climate change. 

“By trying to tackle everything at once we’re diluting our impact, giving too much weight to secondary issues and too little to the really big one.”

Simon Propper, CEO of Context

Ah yes, the silver bullet philosophy. 

Propper’s logic is that if we can beat climate change then many of the other sustainability and environmental issues will go away.

Find the solution to, let’s say emissions, load that bullet into a gun and fire it at climate change and all will be sweet. 

Well, that would be nice certainly.

One solution is easier to find, develop and roll out than a hundred solutions. But while we are on analogies it also means the eggs are in one basket. 

Elsewhere sustainably FED has asked ‘what if it’s not emissions?’ and climate may be an existential threat to everyone but so too is population, food security, resource depletion and peak everything. 


Would the silver climate bullet work?

Let’s take a look at a typical list of environmental issues, this one from the Wikipedia page on the topic

  • Climate change
  • Conservation
  • Energy 
  • Environmental degradation
  • Environmental health 
  • Genetic engineering 
  • Intensive farming
  • Land degradation
  • Soil
  • Land use
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nuclear issues
  • Overpopulation
  • Ozone depletion
  • Pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Air pollution
  • Reservoirs
  • Resource depletion
  • Consumerism
  • Fishing
  • Logging
  • Mining
  • Toxins
  • Waste

Most of these are related to the broad concept of sustainability that we might take to mean, in Brundtland report fashion, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

And now let’s see what would happen to them if the climate was stable, not warming or cooling but just staying still. 

In other words, it was fixed from the point of excessive warming or cooling. Whatever the silver bullet was it worked to kill the existential threat of climate change.

We can be generous here and say the climate can be held stable at 1990 averages, a popular if arbitrary date used as a reference for many of the emission reduction targets. 

Here is the same list of major environmental issues only this time the issues that would still be a problem under a stable climate are in bold 

  • Climate change
  • Conservation
  • Energy 
  • Environmental degradation
  • Environmental health 
  • Genetic engineering 
  • Intensive farming
  • Land degradation
  • Soil
  • Land use
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nuclear issues
  • Overpopulation
  • Ozone depletion
  • Pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Air pollution
  • Reservoirs
  • Resource depletion
  • Consumerism
  • Fishing
  • Logging
  • Mining
  • Toxins
  • Waste

Oops, it would seem that all these issues, bar one, would still be there if the climate were fixed. 

And that one is climate change, the issue we fixed.

Here is another list from a green living website that is typical of the less technical lists 

  • Contamination of drinking water
  • Water pollution
  • Soil contamination
  • Wildlife conservation
  • Air pollution
  • Biological pollutants
  • Carbon footprint
  • Climate change
  • Consumerism 
  • Dams
  • Ecosystem destruction
  • Energy conservation
  • Fishing 
  • Food safety
  • Genetic engineering
  • Intensive farming
  • Land degradation
  • Land use
  • Logging
  • Mining
  • Nanotechnology
  • Natural disasters
  • Nuclear issues
  • Other pollution issues
  • Overpopulation
  • Ozone depletion
  • Resource depletion
  • Sustainable communities
  • Toxins
  • Waste

Three issues are fixed this time although we were being generous saying that stable climate means we fixed natural disasters. Tsunami, flood, fire and storms occurred throughout the history of our planet even before humans were around to suffer from them.

No, no, no Mr Propper, climate change is big, but fixing it is no magic bullet for sustainability, nowhere near.

At sustainably FED we would agree that climate change will make any number of environmental issues and sustainability issues much more difficult to fix but the reverse is not true.

Fixing climate (even if that were possible) does not make us all sustainable. 

Don’t even think that it does.


Why is fixing climate not a fix for sustainability

Obvious answer really. 

Because of the ‘meeting the needs’ part of the definition. 

7,800,000,000 people have a lot of need.

Screenshot of Worldometer population clock 29 July 2020
Source: Screenshot from Worldometer taken at noon on 29 July 2020 AEST

All these people have need of food, water, shelter and wellbeing each and every day of every year for decade after decade.

This need can only be met with resources and, until we figure out a complete technological solution, most of these resources come from the natural environment and our management of it.

Climate affects natural resources, certainly, and a changing climate will mess with patterns of production everywhere on the planet, but a stable climate does not make resource use miraculously sustainable. 

That only happens if we manage resources sensibly and match our demands to their ability to supply. Ideally using yield while retaining natural capital.


What sustainably FED suggests

We need to reduce emissions wherever possible, sequester as much carbon as possible into soils and vegetation, transition rapidly away from fossil fuel energy and prepare to adapt for when the climate changes as it inevitably will.

This version of the climate change silver bullet, more like buckshot in a 12-gauge shotgun, than a single slug.

All these strategic things and the myriad of specific actions that flow on from them are critical however challenging they might be.

But this is not going to suddenly make us all sustainable. 

For that, we have to challenge ourselves to consider consumption, waste and how we use nature, especially the tendency to allow externalities.

This is way more than just a reduction in fossil fuel use and land clearing and praying that the climate will go back to ‘normal’

In short, we have to get real for there is no silver bullet.


Are you more concerned about climate change than other environmental issues?

Are we wrong to be critical of the climate change magic bullet? 

Comment below, great to hear from you

sustainably fed

Hero image modified from photo by Boxed Water Is Better on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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