Why climate and environment belong together

by Felix Schaumann

In a recent blogpost, I argued that climate policy should be seen and treated as something fundamentally different from environmental policy. However, I am not sure I entirely convinced even myself. Therefore, I’d like to use this piece to take the opposite stance, by arguing that climate and environmental problems should be confronted together.

It is true that the main cause of climate change consists of burning fossil fuels, suggesting a focus on economic solutions relating to energy use. However, it is also true that the effects of climate change present themselves as environmental problems – ranging from storms and droughts to the extinction of species and the loss of entire ecosystems.

Rain forest in Bolivia - photo by Felix Schaumann

 

Accordingly, the focus of climate policies should not be limited to mitigation of climate change, but also include the adaptation to the climatic changes that are already unavoidable. And this, to a large extent, means that local environments have to be strengthened. If we aim to avoid major climate change damages, we should better make sure to have a resilient environment that is capable of withstanding climatic changes.

Risk of backgrounding global problems and potential co-benefits

Further, isolating climate change from other environmental problems risks painting the picture of an overall sound economic and political system that could be maintained in the current form, if only the problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were solved. By doing so, all the other global environmental problems – air pollution, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, and many more – are backgrounded. Accordingly, measures to tackle climate change are judged only by their cost-efficiency: How cheaply can they reduce our GHG emissions? As a result, attention is devoted mainly to solutions that target GHG emissions in a very narrow sense, and otherwise perpetuate the status quo. Less «cost-efficient» solutions that could help mitigate climate change alongside other environmental problems are again backgrounded. However, when attempting a global systemic transition, it is important not to lose the global system out of sight – and with it the many intertwined problems and solutions. It is only by acknowledging possible adverse side effects of climate change policies, and possible co-benefits for other global problems, that satisfying policies can be found.

Similar causes, similar solutions

On a more subtle note, the separation of climate change and other environmental problems is maybe not even that clear-cut. In my previous text I lamented the confusion of measures against air pollution with measures against climate change. Surely, local air pollution has very different effects than global climate change, driven (?) by different gases. However, it is just as evident that both effects result from the same root cause: fossil fuels. Similarly, a large part of land use-related GHG emissions has the same root causes as biodiversity losses: deforestation, forest degradation and industrial agriculture.

Finally, in my last post, I contrasted concerns about nature (environmental problems) from concerns about humans (climate change). But this distinction might be difficult to uphold. Some environmental problems, such as air pollution, have always been about human health and well-being. For others, such as biodiversity loss, the consequences on ecosystem services to human societies are increasingly being put into focus. Maybe this is the symptom of a general trend, a global recognition that sustainability problems of different kinds constitute some of the biggest challenges to human well-being in this century. Be that wishful thinking or not – what is indisputable is the fact that the climate crisis comes alongside a range of other global environmental problems, combined with the fact that in many aspects, they go back to similar causes and have similar solutions. Given this recognition, there seems to be little reason to act as if climate change was the only problem, and to risk fixing one issue while at the same time exacerbating the rest.

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