We Have to Find Ways to Synchronize our Discussions of Climate Risk and Sustainability

This blog post was originally published by Dr. Mark C. Trexler at 2DegreesNetwork.com, Oct. 29, 2012.  We think it still holds today.

I recently heard a statement that intrigued me as much as it puzzled me: “We need to talk less about climate risk, and start talking more about sustainability risk.”

I had trouble getting my head around the intent of this comment. I have a pretty good sense of what we’re talking about when it comes to the risks of climate change.

I’m less sure about what it means to talk about the risks of sustainability.

But the statement stayed with me, and I began to give it some thought. I’ve come up with several potential interpretations.

  1. People are tired of talking about ‘climate risk’. ‘Sustainability risk’, it could be argued, is a more useful way to engage in what is basically the same conversation;
  2. ‘Sustainability risk’ is a more accurate way of characterizing the broader range of climate, environmental, resource, and economic risks that we have to address going forward, and we need to ‘think bigger’ than just climate change;
  3. In order to better motivate the environmental efforts of individuals and companies in their day to day lives we need to be able to positively portray their efforts and impacts. That’s easier to do with a non-specific term like ‘sustainability’ than a relatively specific term like ‘climate risk’

The first two points could be legitimate reasons to argue for re-framing the risk-management conversation around ‘sustainability’ rather than ‘climate change’. My suspicion, however, is that the third point best represents the intent underlying the original statement.

People are tired of talking about ‘climate risk’, partially because it’s such a large topic and we’re making so little progress. Governmental, corporate, and even individual sustainability plans and efforts, conversely, contain all sorts of measures that are measurable and achievable:

  • Reducing absolute energy use and carbon footprints;
  • Reducing relative energy use and carbon emissions per unit of output, however benchmarked;
  • Reducing water use, or increasing the use of recycled materials, or reducing waste generation;
  • Simply doing better than your competitors in environmental metrics;
  • Engaging with consumers to encourage environmentally friendly behaviors;
  • Buying carbon offsets or renewable energy credits to make energy consumption “green”; and
  • Simply being more transparent in reporting corporate environmental performance

As a result, focusing on ‘sustainability’ rather than on ‘climate risk’ offers a couple of key psychological advantages:

  • It harkens back to the mantra of “think globally, act locally”, a mantra that continues to resonate with people; and
  • Focusing on sustainability allows one to focus more on the intent of the actor and to celebrate incremental steps in the right direction

Both of these are harder to do with climate risk, where the more appropriate mantra is probably “think locally, act globally”, and where it is harder to ignore long-term outcomes. As the conventional wisdom builds that we should expect 6-8oC of global temperature change by 2100, rather than the 2oC that the media has concentrated on, it becomes more difficult to focus on intent and incremental steps.

With atmospheric concentrations of CO2 passing 400ppm this year, and with the smashing of records for the extent of Arctic ice melt this summer, it’s obvious that we’re not managing climate risk.

Is it helpful in this context to talk less about climate risk and more about sustainability? In the film White Wilderness in 1958, Walt Disney films brought us the metaphor of herds of lemmings periodically throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea. The filming was staged (lemmings don’t actually throw themselves off cliffs in large numbers), but the mental image created is too good to pass up when it comes to putting climate risk and sustainability into context.

So imagine high cliffs in the distance as a metaphor for the amount of climate change currently being forecasted by the scientific community, and its resulting impacts (the impacts of 6-8oC of average global temperature increase are almost inconceivable in a world where human civilizations have evolved within a remarkably stable 1oC band over the last 10,000 years).

Based on current science, human society seems inexorably headed up the slope toward these climate risk cliffs, just as lemmings supposedly did in their periodic migrations.

Depressing picture
That’s a pretty depressing picture. If we frame the question as one of promoting sustainability instead of focusing on climate risk cliffs in the distance, where does that take us? Perhaps it allows us to focus on the efforts of companies and individuals to promote energy efficiency and water savings, “eat local” as a more sustainable alternative, watch our carbon footprints and promote renewable energy, and generally act in a more socially conscious way – sort of like seeing some lemmings setting up gyms along their path so that they’ll be “leaner and meaner” when they get to the top.

Being “leaner and meaner” lemmings, however, wouldn’t prevent them from still plummeting to their deaths when they get to the cliffs.

And at the end of the day, incremental progress on things like energy efficiency, water use, or corporate transparency, can’t be assumed to either shorten the climate risk cliffs (mitigation), or result in all of us being issued parachutes before we go off the cliffs (adaptation) if the climate still changes by 6-8oC.

This isn’t a failing of the sustainability topic per se. When trying to accomplish change it is important to set achievable targets and to feel a sense of reward for positive steps taken.  Incrementalism is probably a good thing in this context. But if as a result we lose sight of the climate risk cliffs in the fog of incremental actions, it could all prove ephemeral when we inevitably get to the cliffs themselves.

To come back to the original question, suggesting that we stop talking about ‘climate risk’ in favor of ‘sustainability risk’ or simply ‘sustainability’ is a false choice, and may just reframe the climate change problem in a way to allows people to more easily ignore it.

Any reasonable conception of sustainability ultimately has to mean that we’ve addressed climate risk. And if sustainability fully encompasses climate risk, what’s the benefit of simply talking about the larger term?

If we leave climate change out of sustainability discussions, the only people we’re fooling is ourselves. We have to find ways to synchronize our discussions of climate risk and sustainability, and find ways to get more individuals and companies thinking more seriously about the climate risk cliffs and how to avoid them.

Right now, too much of what we talk about when it comes to sustainability is, well, unsustainable.

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