Climate change book review by CEC member Ke Chung Kim

25 January 2011 | News story

CEC member Ke Chung Kim reviews Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David W. Orr in the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy.

Ke Chung Kim
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802 USA (email: kck@psu.edu)

How come our climate has gone crazy? Global warming, stupid! It is an American euphemistic answer to historic environmental disaster, the most serious issue of the new century. As David Orr clearly explains in the preface to his new book, “The ongoing disruption of the Earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” Naturally, it is a matter of human sustainability, which is in everyone’s interest. Yet, most Americans continue to deny the reality of the first global human-made environmental disaster that has already begun. It may not be surprising that Americans, democratic capitalists, are busy enriching themselves and enjoying individual peace and freedom. Americans, being moral individualists, perhaps are too embarrassed to admit that we are the primary culprit. Amidst intellectual paradox and denial, we are at the crossroads to redirect our destiny for humanity’s future.

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse presents an excellent dissection of the issues pertaining to ominous climate change, with the focus on American governance and politics. Orr opens many doors for all of us to debate and research, although his discussion is primarily directed to strategies in the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural domains. His powerful analysis of intellectual paradoxes certainly ignites the core of our conscience, from the individual to the leadership level of American society. In this sense, considering the trends and attitudes of world leaders in dealing with international economic and environmental issues, his treatment of global climate change is rather narrow and somewhat inadequate for the even broader worldwide debate that we now need. On global issues, the world community respects and expects American leadership, which is still of paramount importance for policy and mitigative efforts. At the same time, Americans are not readily open to global environmental issues even though, as the most developed nation and a global leader in science and technology, we are in many ways responsible for climate change. As recent opinion polls show, Americans are the people least aware of industrial and technological abuse of the world environment and most skeptical of global warming. Similarly, the American media downplay global environmental issues like biodiversity, for instance neglecting the 2005 release of the historic Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the most ambitious study ever of planetary ecosystem health. Climate change is nevertheless everybody’s concern as a matter of human sustainability. Our audience is now global.

The issues of global climate change are complex, involving a wide range of economic and sociopolitical perspectives linked to almost every fabric of our society. Climate change is closely tied to fossil fuel, which is then connected to international policy and economic development. Thus, climate change represents the anthropogenic assault facing the entire Earth ecosystem. Compounding this problem is a huge demographic load of 6.8 billion people. Resource overuse and increasing energy demands are complicated by an impending shortage of oil, dilemmas made worse by the collapse of the American financial system. As Orr describes in abundantly clear terms, climate change offers the first global evidence of how and how much we have abused our planet’s ecological integrity.

In the sustainability context, as we enter the period of mitigation and rebuilding nature for human sustainability, I am concerned that global agreements dealing with environmental issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change often move to the back burner without specific resolution as other hot issues arise. Concern about global biodiversity loss, along with the spirit and excitement of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), started at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and quickly spread worldwide, but gradually declined to the point of oblivion. This year world governments failed to deliver on commitments made in 2002 to reduce global biodiversity loss by 2010; instead, the planet has seen alarming biodiversity declines, as reported by the Joint News Release (29 April 2010) from the 2010 Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, UNP/CMC, BirdLife International and CBD. To most Americans, the CBD is a historical note and biodiversity is no longer something we must protect. The United Nations and its agencies maintain minor activities, although these are mostly administrative functions with practically no productive consequences. Even the Year of Biodiversity, designated for 2010, is hardly noted or celebrated in the United States and most other countries. Similarly, the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009 collapsed and cast a negative shadow over the global climate movement.

In the face of these catastrophes, the core of Orr’s analysis offers diverse approaches to resolving the emerging disaster. The mitigation of global climate change, currently planned through carbon trading and carbon-emission control, could come to the same fate as the CBD because global environmental issues require collective sacrifice. The massive expenditure needed from every nation would involve the economic and social lives of all people. However, although many intellectual and public leaders do understand what biodiversity is and what the CBD stands for, we cannot expect people to sacrifice their tight personal resources to support global environmental issues.

Even the knowledge base behind our understanding of biodiversity has not been enriched recently, notably within the context of taxonomy, the most basic science that has built our understanding of global biodiversity since the Linnean period over 250 years ago. Taxonomists in universities and natural history museums provided knowledge in the form of species identification and biodiversity classification, collectively called taxonomic service, of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. This loose scientific infrastructure has rapidly declined since the 1992 Rio Declaration and has now almost collapsed without any new models. This decline is greatly hampering the discovery and description of new species worldwide and retarding the advancement of knowledge about global biodiversity that is baseline data for human development and sustainability. This trend became even more vivid and disturbing to me last year when I read Biodiversity and Landscape: A Paradox of Humanity for its new release in paperback (2009).1 All of the predictions regarding biodiversity presented by my colleagues of distinguished scholarship and scientific accomplishment were as ominous and disturbing as in the original edition (1994). I am afraid that an intellectual paradox is deeply ingrained in human nature, expressed by the anthropocentrism that is at the core of our approach to advancing science and technology, as well as in recognizing and admitting the human abuse of our life-support system.

In Chapter 6, “Millennial Hope,” Orr discusses the possibility of averting climate-change catastrophe with technology that raises serious ethical questions because it means unprecedented technological experiments on our planet. If they fail, these experiments could add to global disaster and cloud the future of human sustainability. A recent issue of The Economist (April 24, 2010) had several articles on the impacts of the Icelandic volcanic eruption. Like this spectacular volcanic show that we could only watch on our television screens or through the window of a flying helicopter, we are basically helpless regarding natural events, particularly those seriously affecting biodiversity, the environment, and climate at the global scale. Beyond watching with indignation, all we can do is work on mitigation, security, post-event repair, and perhaps rebuilding. Yet, there is always someone with the power of technology who tries to control natural phenomena as well as human-made climate change. To counterbalance the impacts of global warming, the idea of “geoengineering” to cool the atmosphere is floating around among technologists. This is not surprising in the sense of the anthropocentric mentality–simply stated “we can control it with technology since we made it amiss.” Regrettably, we have not learned that we cannot control natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, or even a regional hurricane like Katrina. With climate change, however, anthropocentric problem solving for the benefit of humanity has become a threat to human sustainability.

Humans are a curious and inventive hominoid species, Homo sapiens Linnaeus, with large brains and apt genetic makeup to successfully survive, expand our habitats, and modify the environment. These traits finally led humans to take over the Earth system. Ever since hunter-gatherer days, through the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we have expanded our needs and found ways to meet them. Since the development of organized societies built on productive agriculture, wars and warfare broke out for territorial or religious causes and never ceased for long. With these wars, fighting tools, arms, and armament technology evolved. Throughout human history, we have never learned to avoid warfare and sustain peace. After the Industrial Revolution, science and technology advanced and our intellectual capacity for innovations and invention grew. Technological progress accelerated, along with the development of public education that facilitated technology’s phenomenal advance, particularly during the last century. In the modern technological world, we are faced with unprecedented challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, among other environmental disasters. The impacts of rapidly growing technological innovations are not nature’s products, but human-made effects for the sake of problem solving, entertainment, or advancing needs.

Technological advance through anthropogenic-driven innovation continues and may be able to improve our livelihoods and enhance our capacity to survive in the new millennium. Anthropocentric technology usually meets the intended objective, but with a bag full of side effects that later come to haunt us. To win World War II over the Japanese empire we invented and exploded atomic bombs, but ever since nuclear bombs have evolved and became a perpetual threat to humanity. Even today, Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are political quagmires for the world community. Now, we have reached the point of no return for a planet loaded with 6.8 billion people who demand crucial ecosystem services and products that are increasingly difficult to sustain. Every aspect of our technological success resulted in a paradox of economic gain and ecological loss with no clear direction for getting back on track. We needed better transportation, which produced automobiles; we needed more energy, which produced coal mining and nuclear power; we needed more food for a rapidly increasing population, which led to more chemical fertilizer and pesticides; and so on. We have now reached the point of no return for the Earth system burdened with people pursuing the lifestyle Americans have developed for the last century. To resolve the anthropocentric paradox we need a new paradigm to look at the Earth system in a natural context, not anthropocentrically as a collection of objects.

The Industrial Revolution jumpstarted human population, adding more than six billion people to the planet during the period of 1800-2010, with an addition of 4.3 billion since 1950. Endless economic expansion eventually yielded global economic failure and financial devastation on “mighty” Wall Street in 2008. In other words, anthropocentric approaches to development and decision making brought humanity to where we are today: a global environment with a polluted landscape, a warming biosphere that is in the process of being transformed into a “chemosphere,” a changing climate, and a collapsed economy and financial system. Contemporary reality blinds intellectual elites who continue searching and experimenting without definable principles or viable models to renew our broken system. Leaders and people all around the world are trying to stop the decline of humanity and to stabilize the environment with anthropocentric approaches and technology and a compulsion for continued economic growth. We can no longer afford to look at the Earth system without recognizing the dynamics of our life-support system as the basis for the future of humanity.

The issues dealt with in this book are at the heart of environmental disasters that may determine the future of our life-support system as well as our evolutionary destiny. Life on Earth has existed for 3.5 billion years. The global biodiversity that sustains it did not emerge suddenly during the last century, but rather evolved over many millions of years in each unique lineage. Throughout geological history, natural events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as their related after-effects like tsunamis and natural climate changes, have not been in the human domain. These natural events changed geology and the global environment, overhauling the planetary system, renewing biodiversity, and refreshing the global living system. While these events occurred before the emergence of humans, we now face not only natural disasters, but also disasters of our own creation. To mitigate the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems and to protect humanity from destruction, we must better understand what nature is all about and what biodiversity–all these organisms, big and small, pestiferous and beneficial, plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms–truly means to us.

We must better understand how nature sustains ecosystem function and services and how our fellow species evolve irrespective of how we have abused them under the drive of an anthropocentric worldview. As the primary resource and capital for sustaining our life-support system, global biodiversity must be protected. Our knowledge base, including crucial information about the dynamics of the biosphere, biodiversity, ecosystems, and climate change, needs to be expanded at both local and global scales. We must dedicate ourselves to the perpetuity of the Earth’s species. Otherwise, we have to prepare for the extinction of the human species. As Orr states, we must continue the work of public institutions like NASA, the (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy that provide crucial information and strategies for humanity beyond anthropocentrism.
Notes

1 Kim, K. & R. Weaver (Eds.). 2009. Biodiversity and Landscape: A Paradox of Humanity. 2nd ed.New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Read the rejoinder from the author

Dr. Ke Chung Kim is Director, Center for BioDiversity Research, Penn State Institute of the Environment, University Park, Pensylvania, USA. Email: kck@psu.edu