Bridges to Sustainability: People, Planet, Possibility

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Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier that will make other problems such as agricultural productivity worse.
This is one of the conclusions at a panel called “Trusting Climate Science” here at the
Aspen Environment Forum, sponsored by the National Geographic and the Aspen Institute.

I am experimenting with liveblogging from the meeting. Lets see how it goes.

The first panel I attended featured Andrew Revkin, Peter Huybers, Mohan Munasinghe, moderated by David Brancaccio.

“The pace of sea level rise is uncertain” says Revkin. It is a distraction to argue about the pace when we know that it is a real problem. It is like arguing about a bus rolling backwards down a hill in SF as to whether it is going 3 or 4 miles per hour.

“Ultimately it is human beings and their fate that concerns us”, says Munasinghe. “The planet will persist, but will we? Already we see billions of people affected, with 300,00 deaths a year. The poor have least to do with the problem yet they will suffer the most.” He argues that we need to look at ways to reduce emissions. There is not enough carbon space left to let the poor to grow out of poverty. Poverty will kill people long before climate change. Those of us who have enjoyed the benefits of carbon emissions must decide what we can give up to give those people a chance. We need an approach to change our lifestyles. IT has to be done now.

Revkins did a series in the NYT 2000 called “The Climate Divide“. The wealthy are already working to insulate themselves from climate risk.

We need an adaptation safety net- insurance policies that will be used to help areas that are most in danger. Nations need to put money aside each year for this insurance.

When queried, most of the audience felt that their standard of living is better than that of their grandparents. Few felt their grandchildren would have a better standard of living than they have today. Those sentiments reflect a reality that our standard of living has peaked, argues Munasinghe.

In honor of Steve Schneider, a climate scientist who passed away last week, Revkin reminded us that although we manage risk at a personal level very well, we fail miserably globallye. For example, we buy fire insurance even though our house is not on fire and there is a low probability it will catch on fire. In contrast globally, we know we have some funky wiring, yet we are not buying insurance.

Questions from the audience: Can democracy address these issues effectively? Revkin recalls an interview with McCain a number of years ago. McCain said that democracy will have difficulty addressing these issues and in fact now McCain has dropped out of the entire debate. Huybers struck a hopeful note saying that democracy may take longer than a dictatorship to address these problems, but ultimately we will pull together and make the right decisions.

One questioner brought up the issue of large corporations using the California proposition process to put issues before the public. How can we deal with this? Revkin answered with the fact that their are 100 fold more lobbyists surrounding climate change than legislators. The public needs to know the forces shaping these things- it is not simply good science. Eg carbon sequestration is better funded because of the coal lobby.

Several of the panelists remarked on the success of South Korea in addressing global climate change. For example, S. Korea managed to use a large chunk of their financial stimulus package to fund green energy projects whereas other governments used only 10% of their stimulus budgets for this. One of the reasons that S. Korea is successful is that they see the green economy and sustainability is the way of the future. Revkin said that S. Korea has a larger portion of their GDP invested in science and technology than most other countries. S. Korea is a rising center of excellence.

We need to focus less on risk and more on opportunity. We need to have conversations across interdisciplinary boundaries and engage social scientists so that we can understand social movements and better affect change.

What brought down the Berlin wall? It was young people taking advantage of opportunity. The checkpoint was open for a certain period for people to cross, hundreds of young people crossed, the border guards were afraid to shoot. It was unpredictable and it shows that their were opportunities and that we need to invest in finding these opportunities.

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Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.