Ten Miles Square


April 22, 2013 11:15 AM Climate Change Is Not an Environmental Issue

By Ryan Cooper

Glen Canyon Dam

Just downblog, my colleague Daniel Luzer reads some unfortunate polling data finding that only 52 percent of Americans believe protecting the environment is a top-tier issue, which puts it in 11th place, behind “helping the poor and needy” and “reducing crime.” Bad news for climate hawks, one might think.

But this is a good chance to point out yet again that climate change, by far the most important political issue of our time, has little or nothing to do with environmentalism. The classic environmental battles of the 60s and 70s were all about preserving the wilderness, saving threatened species, and generally limiting the damage industry and the government could do to the biosphere. This ranged from keeping dams out of Grand Canyon, to restricting DDT use to protect birds, to cleaning up industrial pollution like smog. Though it is more complex than this, these kind of traditional environmental issues have a strong element of a tradeoff between the environment and industrial capitalism.

Climate change isn’t like this. By far the most pressing reason to deal with it is the simple preservation of human society. This isn’t a clean distinction, of course, unchecked climate change will wreck much of the biosphere as well (and environmental protection rules often brought enormous human benefits as well), but this is qualitatively different from something like, say, rescuing the California Condor. Climate change is not just a case of some corporations profiting from raping the collective commons, it’s our society slowly destroying itself.

This is why I get somewhat frustrated when I hear climate hawks reflexively invoke “the planet” as a reason for strong action on climate. The planet is nigh invincible. We literally couldn’t destroy it if we wanted to. It’s just a big chunk of rock. The Earth’s biosphere, however, upon which our society is totally dependent, is little more than a thin layer of grease between that rock and the void of space. From the perspective of geologic history, during which more than 99 percent of all species have eventually perished, it is precarious in the extreme.

Folks who lived through Hurricane Sandy will get this instinctively. Dealing with climate change is about protecting our own. It may sound cold and selfish, but if a polity can’t manage simple self-preservation, then everything else is moot.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • RaflW on April 24, 2013 10:27 AM:

    I tend to think the argument, somewhat sadly, needs to be reduced to economics: climate change is starting to mess with capitalism. I know the Munich RE study has taken some hits of late, but corporate risk managers are starting to understand that costal business interruption risk is increasing significantly, post-Sandy. Insurance loss risk is up for home and business underwriters.

    Drought is messing up farming, commodity prices, and a smoothly operating food system. So is flooding. Both drought and flooding have impacted river barge freight traffic in recent years, a key to getting ag product to market. The Great Lakes are dropping, messing up cargo economics for both Lakers and Salties.

    Fire in the mountain West is a rising danger, and not just because of 50 years of past forestry practice, but because of drought, heat stress, and bugs like pine beetles that are assisted by drought and mild winters.

    These are just a handful of the economic disruptions I happen to know about in the corners of the US i visit/live. Much more is afoot globally.

    Sure, some traders and speculators can make money on downsides and volatility, but most corporations want predictable operations to have a path to profits. We have to help our corporate 'citizens' see that, as Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calls it, global weirding is a risk that will be increasingly unacceptable to C-suite leaders who want to run successful businesses.

    I wish the survival argument would work, but reading Diamond's book Collapse some years ago pretty much convinced me that humans are just wired not to believe they're ultimately destructible. Kinda like teens who drive crazy, we're all speeding towards a carbon wall and are fooling ourselves that can maneuver around it.

  • Ten Bears on April 24, 2013 11:19 AM:

    We are but fleas agitating the hide of a far greater organism.

    It has long been my contention we all will need thicker skin. The survival of my grand-children, and of their grand-children, takes precedence over all else.

    No fear.