The Science of Sustainability


We began this week with a video released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlining the threat anthropogenic carbon poses to global climate systems.  Greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated since the Industrial Revolution and there is no doubt that anthropogenic and biogenic emissions are contributing to the warming of earth’s atmosphere.  Though it is nearly impossible to predict all the effects rising temperatures will have on the environment, many climate planners have begun to encourage the development of measures for city and regional adaptation to sea level rise and extreme weather events.

The Pataki reading made the argument that we need interdisciplinary, whole-ecosystem studies of the socioeconomic and biophysical factors that influence mass and energy flows in specific cities.  Because most people on earth live in urban areas, analyzing and changing the ways cities operate could have an enormous impact on emissions.  If a city is taken as an ecosystem, scientists can begin to address its flows as a sort of metabolism- inputs and outputs of energy, water, nutrients, materials, and wastes.

Wheeler calls for a more unified response to climate change and more dedicated mitigation efforts.  Though attempts to coordinate on a global scale, like the Kyoto Protocol, have not seen much success, climate change should be enough of a threat to inspire a unified effort.  The current political system, however, does little to encourage near-term change.

A theme that recurred throughout our class discussion was how to use the science of climate change to inspire behavioral changes at all scales.  Even individuals who are informed of the science are largely unwilling or unable to adjust their behaviors to fit into models of sustainability.  So much of individual consumption and emission patterns are dependent on the city in which an individual lives, the infrastructures in place in that city, the businesses that service the city, and the regulations of the government with jurisdiction over the city.

Oftentimes, the science climate change seems too detached from our everyday experiences.  In class, we agreed that, while alarming, the graphs and figures included in the IPCC video did not necessarily look like crisis.  A factor that further complicates the practical and philosophical problems facing the implementation of tactics for mitigation and adaptation is the active force of climate change deniers who mislead and misinform in order to preserve their own economic interests.

Lastly, different parts of the world will feel the impacts of climate change more dramatically than others.  As climate scientists are working to develop more precise predictive models for specific geographic areas, it is important to keep in mind the history of environmental justice (and environmental injustices) when beginning any sort of adaptation planning.  As we continue these discussions, it is important to ask how social and political organizing can be an effective strategy for both mitigation and adaptation.  Coming away from the discussion, we were left with a few questions:

-Should we change the images we use to discuss climate change?

-Would environmental groups be justified in using the alarmism inherent in the imagery of natural disasters to ignite behavioral change?

-Even knowing what we know, can we change our behaviors in order to reach better energy balances in our own homes, communities, and cities?

-How much can planning do to shift the tide to environmentally sustainable development?


8 thoughts on “The Science of Sustainability

  1. skonala254

    You bring up a great question in whether we need to change the images associated with climate change. I think the answer to that is yes and no. Many of us became interested in climate change by looking at the very images that we are criticizing. Even though I had been interested in climate change before watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the images presented in the documentary (graphs of carbon and pictures of retreating glaciers) were what convinced me on the urgency of the situation. We definitely can’t deny the profound impact that the images we have already exposed to have had in raising public awareness.

    I think the question now is how do we expand, not change, the body of images that we present to the public. I think the answer to that lies in two areas. The first area is that we need to show more localized images. People are more likely to respond to local concerns that will impact themselves, their family, and their friends. The second area where we need to show images related to climate change is on the consumption side. People should know the global impacts of their consumption patterns. One example on how to do this is the Google Maps extension that allows people to see the carbon emitted by making a trip based off mode of travel.

    Essentially, we need to expand the images related to climate change so that people have better information on the consequences of their actions.

  2. Great posts, I’m enjoying the discussion about individual behavioral change and what it actually takes to not only transform people’s consciousness around climate change issues, but also motivate people to act on the information – not only through lifestyle choices, but also their political involvement. I go back to a comment that I made in class that day, which is that successful public policy can occur when the following doors are opened:

    1. Political will
    2. An in-depth understanding of the Problem (that people can grasp and feel)
    3. A sound Policy solution.

    I think that the same argument could be applied to personal behavioral change. Political will could be translated to cultural norms. I’ve noticed that people tend to take things on in their life (whether values or practices) when other people believe it too. It’s easier to feel as if you’re doing the right thing when other people believe in and support those ideas. An understanding of the problem is a bit self-explanatory, but the actual road to achieving that it is of course quite difficult. I think that as people mentioned above, it often needs to come through our institutions – schools, TV and media, government programs, advertising, etc. Lastly, a sound policy solution could mean that there must be feasible, impactful alternative solutions that people (believe that they) can engage in. Like many have mentioned in their comments, people don’t deal well with being overwhelmed with information. If the problem is to big to tackle or comprehend, people tend to give up and think that it’s a hopeless situation anyway, so why bother trying to do anything about it. Just enjoy your life while you can.

    Messaging and framing is also an important topic that we’ve talked about before, that others have discussed here. That’s a longer dialogue for another time. But it’s so crucial because different language and framing moves and relates to different audiences.

    Also, when we say that most people don’t care about climate change, we’re really talking about the average American. If you talk to people who live in island nations in the Pacific, or other places where severe drought or weather patterns are devastating their impoverished country, they might have a different perspective on the issue. They may not call it ‘climate change’, but they may be very in tune with the need to adapt and change their ways of life. Is there a way for people to understand and feel each other’s realities?

    On a completely different note, I keep secretly hoping that if something good were to come about from this current drought (or the polar vortex), it would be that the dialogue on climate change will come more prominently to the forefront. As cities and small towns all over Cali run out of water, maybe people will begin to realize that our way of life isn’t sustainable, and that current policy or infrastructure that we think is so reliable may not be able to support our basic needs anymore…

  3. Thank you for your comments and the great questions you’ve posed. I agree that there is a great detachment of people’s perception of the dire consequences of climate change and urgency to take action and the constraints and lifestyles of everyday life. Sometimes it feels that until we are directly impacted by catastrophe, people will not become conscious about being responsible and taking action. However, when people are engaged at an individual level and a process of popular education is practiced to bring out an individual’s lived experiences and critical consciousness to draw connections of their living conditions, socioeconomic status, history, and environment, I believe that they will take action to push for policy change and make changes in their personal life. The problem with this is that it is a long-term process that will require organizing, education, and political empowerment to drive climate change policy from below. But the reality is that this is taking place now in the global south and in our local communities. So the question for me is how do we strengthen this movement and better link these groups together to have better leverage? I believe that in order to drive the discourse and policy direction of climate change, we must also tackle systemic barriers and power dynamics. These need to be addressed head on as a central part of a climate change agenda.

  4. Great Summary. Thank You.

    The work by climate experts is certainly bringing awareness to the public and addresses the problem in scientific manner as we saw in the video. These efforts are faced with three different challenges:

    (1) The lack of political will to incorporate all these findings in future planning and policy improvements. Since this will require huge policy reform that might interfere with the (business-as-usual) for certain stakeholders.
    (2) The lack of awareness in some parts of the world where there is no enough knowledge or sense of urgency towards such measures.
    (3) The lack of resources to implement any actions that can be of long-term suitability or long-term compliance with climate challenges. This is usually in undemocratic and developing countries where talking about climate is considered a luxury.

    The behavior change that is discussed in class and brought up here is very important point. I believe wise use of resources is a solution for a larger set of problems. Behavior change will protect the planet, save resources and transfer value to upcoming generations. It is the key solution to many problems in which climate change is one.

    One practical point argued in the readings and also brought up in class, is that climate change occurs in a very slow manner which makes it less noticeable as it occur, while we suddenly witness its impacts in some mega disasters. A good example is the Thames flooding, and these floods impacted residential areas that are developed in the flood plain through time (putting the blamei n the British prime-minster is not completely fair), as these forests were altered and the land use changes occurred in longer times through previous government. Which is exactly one of the main problems of climate change.

  5. The theme of communication climate science emerged from Tuesday’s class as a particularly interesting topic in my mind. I found three sources to be particularly helpful in thinking through this complex subject matter.

    First, Susanne Moser wrote an article called “Communicating climate change: history, challenge, process and future directions” that does an amazing job of teasing out the different issues. Some key take aways from this reading were that climate communications requires one to ask a series of questions before determining the right direction. Additionally there are a number of problems that climate communication must overcome. For example, the cause of the climate change problem is invisible. Very few people know what a green house gas looks like and thus they cannot relate to it. An advertisement in Australia strives to overcome this issue with their black balloon campaign.

    Another interesting way to think about climate change communication is terms of the audience. Researchers at Yale’s project on climate change communication ( have identified 6 different types of people: 1) The Alarmed 2) The Concerned 3) The Cautious 4) The Disengaged 5) The Doubtful 6) The Dismissive. When crafting language to encourage people to change it’s key to think about which type of person you’re trying to motivate.

    Finally, a common theme that has emerged from climate communication research is that creating fear may raise people’s initial awareness, however it does not actually result in behavior changes. This was particularly well researched and explained in an article called “Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations by researchers in the UK.

  6. ewolfson2014

    The alarmist way of delivering global warming is a tricky issue. I agree that crisis situations mobilize cities. For example Hurricane Sandy as we talked about in class. However, I’m not sure how this would work on a global scale.
    Alarmist attitudes often produce the opposite affect of their intended goal. Sometimes people are so paralyzed by the sheer disaster, that they may put up their hands and decide to continue business as usual.

    So how can we employ a strategy that alarmist local populations and government to illicit change but leave the larger global sphere out of it?

    Another question I am left wondering is how effective are international treaties? Kyoto Protocol was a complete flub in the US and Canada; however, it was a success in Europe. I’m not quite sure if America can even keep their climate promises to the international community.

  7. Thanks for this, Lili! To continue with our discussion about the importance of moving forward with local-level adaptation efforts in addition to increasing mitigation efforts, I thought I’d share a link to a BBC story I listened to today. It describes how Dutch architects and urban planners are responding to the increasing prevalence of climate change-induced floods by building houses capable of floating (undamaged) on rising waters. The story discusses how urban planners from around the world are traveling to these floating communities to learn how they can apply similar climate change adaptation strategies in their own home communities:
    Outfitting houses to be able to float is just one of millions of adaptation responses, of course, but I think it’s a great example of a low-cost and widely applicable strategy. Small-scale, stand-alone strategies like this don’t require enormous investments from governments, and seem to me to be more feasible and immediately implementable option for countries that lack deep governmental pockets. On the other hand, these types of adaptation efforts shift the financial burden onto individuals, which renews inequity issues — not everyone can afford to pay the extra 20% to make their home bouyant, and those who are least financially able to pay for post-flood repair and clean-up will be those unable to take this preventative action. Should government be responsible for subsidizing adaptation efforts for those who can’t afford to pay? The obvious answer seems to be yes, of course….but given how slowly bureaucracy moves, will financial help still come too late? And if we wait until financial aid can be secured, will we be wasting precious time? Perhaps most importantly, is it best to move forward with potentially inequitable adaptation strategies given that they will be of help to some people, at least, or does this only make things worse by compounding the inequity issue?

  8. edermartinez

    Thank you for your excellent and comprehensive class summary.

    I believe scientists made their work several years ago announcing the detrimental effects of human activity on earth. In spite politicians received the message, they have failed trying to create and implement adequate policies to halt the increasing effects of global warming. On the other hand, scientists can predict global warming effects or create new technologies to reduce CO2 emission, but they lack of power to drive a change.

    Additionally, People also lack of willingness to collaborate to solve the problem. Someone in class mentioned the effects of global warming seem to be so distant that people barely care about it – and I think this is true -. Humans are mostly individualist and we are reticent to act unless our own interests are affected.

    I think people who know about global warming are more willing to collaborate. For this reason I believe one key point is education. I left primary school several years ago. I don’t know what are the current class contents, but I would add this topic as class material or course in the same way as math and sciences are being taught in a classroom.
    Finally, I agree we must use a more alarmist way to deliver this message. Maybe this video is too extreme!

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