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?