Environmentalism Beyond Climate Change

Human civilization has relied on the environment to provide food and water for tens of thousands of years. Time and time again, great empires have fallen because they’ve failed to steward their natural resources, making their societies vulnerable to climatic events like drought. Yes, a changing climate threatens the ecological balance that makes human life possible, but it’s not the only threat. As was said in Ulysses, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It’s about time we wake up.

Climate change skeptics often point out that Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant – after all, how can the very act of breathing be pollution? While this argument is intentionally naive (moderation is key), it begs the question, “what is pollution?”. That question has been central to the environmental movement for decades. Environmentalists have worked to understand questions including what is pollution, who and what are affected by it, who is perpetrating it, and how can it be stopped? In the mid 20th century, these questions led to many successes.

Of course, there are still environmental groups working on specific pollution issues all across the world. But as climate change garners more and more encapsulating attention within the environmental movement, broader society is again neglecting environmental stewardship.

While labeling Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant, as the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency did, is a smart political maneuver – thus enabling it to be regulated by the same laws that regulate other pollutants – C02 isn’t inherently dangerous to the environment. Carbon Dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, threaten the planet through what is projected to be a complicated series of events affecting sea levels, weather, and climate more broadly. These events are already in motion, and there’s no doubt the consequences will fundamentally change life as we know it. These changes will disproportionately harm the billions of people who live in poverty. These changes will inevitably reduce the carrying capacity of the planet for human population. And paradoxically, these changes will make humanity even more reliant on the environment.

As our freshwater resources and arable land become more scarce, we’ll need a healthy and resilient environment more than ever. Yet if our oceans are full of plastic and empty of life, if our rivers and streams are contaminated with heavy metals, if our soil is contaminated with pesticides, if our forests are clearcut – a changing climate will simply exacerbate the catastrophic effects of that ecological damage.

Increasingly, when politicians are asked about the environment, their answers are rudimentary. Democrats say climate change is a critically important issue that needs to be addressed with investment in alternative energy and regulations of fossil fuel industries. Republicans say the science on human caused climate change is unclear, and that the government needs to protect clean air and clean water (just don’t ask them to elaborate or act). But that’s it – there seems to be no more room for discussion, let alone innovative solutions.

While climate change has become a mostly partisan issue, most environmental issues are significantly more bi-partisan. Two thirds of American consumers have bought products because they are perceived to be better for the environment, significantly more than who believe in climate change. Nearly everyone wants clean air to breath, clean water to drink, open spaces to enjoy, and healthy food to feed their families. But burdensome regulations are unpopular – people want choice.

Most importantly, people who believe climate change is a hoax are largely entrenched in those views. By merging all environmental issues with climate change, that deeply held skepticism extends to all of those environmental issues too.

Most environmental issues are local and regional in nature, not global. These issues are easier to understand and easier to solve or prevent. By facing them head on, we can bring communities together. Often, these issues pit old world jobs (logging, hunting, mining, etc) against future prosperity. And they can be solved with sustainable economic development and grassroots activism. Over and over again, communities across the country, like Greensburg Kansas, have been reborn as a result of intense focus and dedication. Places like Bristol Bay in Alaska are the frontline, with massive corporate special interests leveraging their resources to mine precious minerals at the likely expense of fragile ecosystems that support eco-tourism and salmon fisheries. Battles like this have nothing to do with climate change, and they’re vitally important. 

If climate change is viewed and addressed as a distinct issue, requiring specific and large scale prevention and mitigation strategies, then there’s hope for addressing other environmental issues too. But if we continue to view climate change as the ultimate environmental issue, with all others secondary, then history’s nightmare will continue.


2 thoughts on “Environmentalism Beyond Climate Change

  1. William Thomas says:

    The climate change models are pretty good. The benefits of carbon taxes seem straight forward. However, what human society will look like in, say 20, years is anyone’s guess. Since GW is ‘permanent” compared to other pollutants like high nitrates in drinking water or particulate matter in smog, or even an oil spill in California, some solutions may not be complimentary. Let us compare “agribusiness” to small local organic farms. Of course small local farms are better for the planet, right? But do they produce less GHG? I am not so sure (where is that darn study). I do know the reason tractors keep getting larger and larger is because THEY USE LESS FUEL, among others. Another clear example is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). One of the main reasons to oppose this was it would increase global warming. The alternative is trains and trucks, which do cause more global warming (and more spills). Maybe global warming won’t be so bad. Maybe the polar bears will be fine, and folks in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and California will have time to pack up and move away from the coast. But if you don’t like big tractors or oil pipelines, we need carbon taxes now. That will reduce consumption and pay for the solar panels and mass transit.


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