A New Zealand sea lion, endangered. Photographed by me on New Zealand's South Island in 2011.

There’s more to “The Environment” than climate change

The overarching narrative of climate change cannot replace the localized stories of environmental degradation being written all over our Earth.

Climate change is such an extensive problem that even many who acknowledge its causes are too frozen to act on it. All of us are responsible to varying degrees, and there is currently no one capable of forcing the concerted action scientists have been calling for for decades. But being incapable of saving planet Earth from all the effects of climate change is a far cry from being incapable of making a difference on a part of our environment, on one species, on one being.

In his piece in The New Yorker earlier this year, Jonathan Franzen asked,

Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?

He goes on to examine the conflict between many environment and wildlife conservation efforts on the one hand and climate activism on the other. What he finds is that all too often advocacy groups devote their attention and resources to the universal idea of climate change and neglect the present predicaments of the species they vow to protect.

And so I came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change. I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance.

#ClimateChangeIsReal, and it does matter. But there’s a hell of a lot at stake right now regardless of climate, and these concerns are being drowned out by the tunnel-visioned climate change chorus.

Stephen Stromberg wrote a piece that made an important point about the causal relationship between exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic and climate change: there isn’t one. Beside the fact that exploration does not mean oil production will increase any time soon, even when it does, producing more oil does not equate to burning more oil. In the current market, we don’t expect drastic increases in oil production to lead to drastic increases in oil consumption. Rather, as Stromberg points out, higher production in one place will probably lead to lower production in another.

Stromberg’s post is about the fallacy of many otherwise reputable institutions’ claims that allowing drilling in the Arctic will have a direct effect on climate change. Since it does not, and since these organizations choose to focus on climate rather than environment, decision-makers are let off the hook for the habitats, species, and ecosystems drilling will destroy.

Franzen: “It’s not that we shouldn’t care whether global temperatures rise two degrees or four this century, or whether the oceans rise twenty inches or twenty feet; the differences matter immensely. Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations or N.G.O.s or governments, to mitigate global warming or adapt to it. The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority.

I argue that we can’t afford to.

It’s not just about being able to survive for another few millennia – right here, right now matters too. While politicians and the public pace and pull their hair out about how to combat climate change and contend with the uncertainty ahead, this much is certain: we are killing and ruining our present, not just our future.

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2 comments

    1. Thank you! I read Stephen Stromburg’s post and felt like “Huh… He’s right, but something feels wrong here!” So I thought about what drilling DOES do to everyone around it, and there’s no denying it’s destructive even if it doesn’t produce more greenhouse gasses.

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