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The real climate change challenge

Peter Sutoris is an environmental anthropologist based at University College London and the author of the forthcoming “Educating for the Anthropocene” (MIT Press). He tweets @PSutoris.

We’re asking the wrong questions about climate change.  

With a critical mass of politicians, scientists and journalists now embracing the need to cut back on carbon emissions, much of the debate is focusing on questions like: By how much? And by when? 

A far better question is: Can we afford to keep going this way at all? 

On the surface, the focus of the climate discussion makes perfect sense. Climate change is an extremely urgent issue that affects both people and the planet ever more, and we need concrete goals we can rally around. Fixing the self-destructiveness of our civilization sounds vague and overwhelming; keeping global heating under 1.5 degrees Celsius is a much more tangible aim — even if still extremely ambitious. 

But we urgently need to start thinking broader. 

Our narrow focus on lowering our emissions has made us overly reliant on technological solutions, which has turned climate change into an engineering challenge rather than a political battle.

But investing in technology does not guarantee lowering emissions by the margins we need. Some of the tech is experimental, with hard-to-predict collateral damage to the environment. And often, substantial emissions are generated in the manufacturing, installation and maintenance of these solutions, which raises questions about the overall gains from such projects. 

Another issue is that lowering emissions alone will not necessarily prevent the disastrous outcomes we fear. For instance, take the mass extinction the planet is currently undergoing. 

In addition to climate change, species also go extinct due to air, water and soil pollution, the destruction of habitats due to construction, the spread of invasive alien species through travel and trade, and a myriad other factors linked to human activity.

This has serious consequences, and not only for the roughly 1 million species threatened with extinction. If ecosystems collapse because of the loss of biodiversity, the impact on humanity will be truly catastrophic, and it is far from clear that even our most ambitious decarbonization plans could prevent this. 

Paradoxically, focusing just on cutting emissions — which has largely become synonymous with technological innovation and climate finance — might mean that we decarbonize more slowly than we could if we took a more holistic view of the environmental crisis and recognized the cultural and political shifts that are needed. 

Instead of asking how fast we can decarbonize, we should be asking: How do we avoid an environmental catastrophe and increase humanity’s chances for survival? 

The science is clear that keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius is part of the answer, and we must do all we can to ensure this goal is met. Technology and climate finance are indeed two ingredients of the solution to this particular challenge — but we must not forget that this is only one facet of the environmental multi-crisis we have created.

The first enemy in a war is the truth, or so the saying goes. And in our war on climate change, we have sacrificed the basic truth that infinite growth on a finite planet is nonsense. We have convinced ourselves that “green growth” is sustainable, even though the data shows that our “green” technologies have not stopped us from continuing to extract and pillage the environment. 

We have lost sight of ugly truths about ourselves — that our civilization has reduced the environment to a source of raw materials and that our economic and political systems assign virtually no rights to other species, or even to our own future generations.  

While facing these truths might seem depressing, it can, in fact, be liberating. Once we realize that we shouldn’t simply be talking about whether we are moving fast enough but also about the destination we are trying to get to, a universe of possibilities opens up. 

As creative beings, we have proved time and again throughout history that we can reimagine our future. It is time to do just that.

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