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Counterpoint: Dangers of Focusing Solely on Climate Change

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Old 05-20-2008
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Counterpoint: Dangers of Focusing Solely on Climate Change
No one with any scientific sense now disagrees about the severity of the climate crisis. But some people — and some magazines — believe that climate change trumps every other problem. If we take this argument to its extreme, we should ignore any environmental concern that gets in the way of reducing emissions. And that's just plain wrong.
Make no mistake: Tackling climate change is vital. But to see everything through the lens of short-term CO2 reductions, letting our obsession with carbon blind us to the bigger picture, is to court catastrophe.
Climate change is not a discrete issue; it's a symptom of larger problems. Fundamentally, our society as currently designed has no future. We're chewing up the planet so fast, in so many different ways, that we could solve the climate problem tomorrow and still find that environmental collapse is imminent. Myopic responses will only hasten its arrival.
Take the proposal that we cut down old trees in favor of new ones. First, I don't buy the carbon accounting presented to advance this procrustean plan: Older trees can absorb CO2 for centuries after reaching maturity, while replanted forests can emit more CO2 than they sequester until the new trees are as much as 20 years old.
But even if wired's math were correct, this would still be a crap fix for climate change. Chopping down forests causes massive soil erosion and leads to desertification, making repeated tree plantings a dodgy prospect. As monocultures, tree farms are far more vulnerable to pest infestations. And batches of trees planted at the same time are more susceptible to wildfires, causing the carbon they're supposed to be sequestering to go up in smoke.
Old-growth forests, coupled with a broad program of woodlands restoration and sustainable forestry, can provide not only climate relief and ecologically responsible wood and biomass harvests but a slew of other essential ecological services, from salmon habitats to flood prevention. It's a heck of a lot more costly — in both money and emissions — to build massive dams and fish farms than to simply protect the forests we already have.
Another example of how carbon blindness leads to counterproductive policies: embracing nuclear power as a clean energy source. This argument assumes that other clean alternatives will not improve in efficiency or affordability during the 10 years it would take to implement a nuclear program. That's short-term thinking. If we invested the money that we would spend on new nuclear facilities more wisely (and eliminated subsidies on fossil fuels), alternatives like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and wave power could deliver a clean-energy future more cheaply and probably sooner, without any of the security or health risks of nuclear plants. Nuclear power may have a role to play, but it would be far better to create a flexible energy system that draws on many clean sources, instead of on a single panacea. Again, a cut-carbon-at-all-costs approach blinds us to more-sustainable, and ultimately more-promising, solutions.
To have any hope of staving off collapse, we need to move forward with measures that address many interrelated problems at once. We're not going to persuade people in the developing world to go without, but neither can we afford a planet on which everyone lives like an American. Billions more people living in suburbs and driving SUVs to shopping malls is a recipe for planetary suicide. We can't even afford to continue that way of life ourselves.
We don't need a War on Carbon. We need a new prosperity that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits — not just atmospheric gas concentrations, but topsoil depth, water supplies, toxic chemical concentrations, and the health of ecosystems, including the diversity of life they depend upon.
We can build a future in which technology, design, smart incentives, and wise policies make it possible to deliver a high quality of life at lower ecological cost. But that brighter, greener future is attainable only if we embrace the problems we face in all their complexity. To do otherwise is tantamount to clear-cutting the very future we're trying to secure.
Alex Steffen (editor@worldchanging.com) is the editor of the green futurism site Worldchanging.com and of the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century.

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