Recommended read: Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation? by Jonathan Franzen in the April 6, 2015 Issue of The New Yorker. Franzen sees the all-consuming warrior spirit of climate change activists as potentially hurting other environmental causes by redirecting priorities and resources away from conservation projects to the cause of reducing green house gases. Climate change is one threat to biodiversity but there are others, such as habitat loss and fragmentation. If funds are diverted away from preserving habitats, climate change mitigation isn’t going to help those species already lost due to insufficient protection. Is the operation really a success if the patient dies?
Franzen isn’t minimizing the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming. He is simply asking that we accept the reality of trade-offs in any particular proposal to counter climate change, arguing that reductions in GHGs isn’t the only thing that matters when designing and greenlighting projects. Efficient energy developments can harm wildlife and local ecosystems. Care must be taken.
The dominance of climate change in environmental discourse can also turn off people who could become allies in other contexts. Public concern about climate change has been declining for years. It may be the climate change narrative lacks traction because humans have a hard time envisioning and caring about dire events that may or may not happen within their life time. In contrast, the disappearance of wildlife is very real and very now. No one has to be hectored into “believing” that species are dying off on an epic scale. And you don’t have to be of a particular political persuasion to care and want to do something about it.
Franzen notes that human brains aren’t really designed to engage in complex probabilistic thinking about possible scenarios hypothesized to unfold over the span of decades and centuries. Skepticism about climate change springs in part from human nature. Franzen takes issue with the characterization of opponents of aggressive mitigation efforts as a bunch of knaves and idiots, arguing that inaction on climate change isn’t the result of the knaves manipulating the idiots but of rational self-interest and healthy democratic processes.
Another issue is that in some ways we have already lost the battle with climate change. It’s going to happen because governments and people aren’t going to make the necessary sacrifices. As Franzen puts it:
“Even in the nations most threatened by flooding or drought, even in the countries most virtuously committed to alternative energy sources, no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground. Without such a commitment, “alternative” merely means “additional”—postponement of human catastrophe, not prevention. The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy. We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe. One advantage of the latter approach is that, if a miracle cure like fusion energy should come along, there might still be some intact ecosystems for it to save.”
Franzen isn’t suggesting we just throw up our hands in the face of inevitable climate change. Of course we need to do what we can. But knowing that the climate will change, we should also focus on preparing wild areas for the changes that lie ahead:
“In an era of globalism of every sort, a good conservation project has to meet new criteria. The project has to be large, because biodiversity won’t survive in a habitat fragmented by palm-oil plantations or gas drilling. The project has to respect and accommodate the people already living in and around it. (Carbon emissions have rendered meaningless the ideal of a wilderness untouched by man; the new ideal is “wildness,” which is measured not by isolation from disturbance but by the diversity of organisms that can complete their life cycles.) And the project needs to be resilient with respect to climate change, either by virtue of its size or by incorporating altitudinal gradients or multiple microclimates.”