The fantasy of sustainability

There’s no permanent solution to climate change

The latest report on climate change is in. The warnings are as stark as ever, but the language still suggests that climate change is something that can be solved, once and for all, if only we adopted the right policies. But instead of clinging on to the fantasy of sustainability and a future with no climate change, we should focus our efforts in delaying its inevitable catastrophic effects and prepare for them as best we can, argues Thom Brooks.


We are at "code red for humanity" on climate change. In its first major study since 2013, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed a global scientific consensus that humans are primarily responsible for causing climate change, with consequences that may be next to impossible to reverse. The IPCC is clear that things are getting worse. Under all scenarios, the Earth's temperature will have risen 1.5 C this century by 2040, if not sooner. Such an increase creates significant challenges, threatening millions of people living in coastal areas around the world. As the global community prepares to meet for COP26 in Glasgow this November, sharp attention will be directed towards what can be done to urgently reach net zero by the middle of this century.

While the data is new and clearer than ever, the approach is old and familiar. UN Secretary General António Guterres argued that 'we can avert climate catastrophe' if the world works together with 'no time for delay and no room for excuses'. Such statements are commonplace about climate change: namely, that it is a problem that can be solved. If only emissions were reduced or better mitigations like flood defences or green technology were in place, then climate change will trouble us no more. I call this an end-state solution, as it claims that we can achieve a stable state of perfect environmental harmony if only we adopt the right solution to this problem. Such thinking drives calls for actions that will, as Guterres says, ‘avert’ and avoid any future catastrophe. The only problem is, there is no end-state solution to climate change.

End-state solutions misunderstand the kind of challenge we face.


The problem with solutions to climate change

End-state solutions misunderstand the kind of challenge we face. They err in thinking if only human activity was different, then any future climate catastrophe can be averted. The problem with this thinking is that climate catastrophes don't require human activity to happen. Several have happened before - and, in the case of the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, may have had extraterritorial causes.

If this is correct, the task of tackling the many troubling consequences associated with climate change may be even greater than it might appear. This is because climate change and catastrophe may be unavoidable. This is not a problem with a simple solution.

As I argue in my new book Climate Change Ethics for an Endangered World, there is no shortage of proposals that claim to offer the answer. One idea is that if only we all lived within the same 'ecological footprint' - determined by dividing what the atmosphere can absorb by the global population – then all would be well. If we do not exceed this footprint, the argument goes, then global emissions can be under control and further climate change averted. However, climate change is not avoidable even if carbon emissions ceased altogether. While significant reductions are essential to limit human impact on the environment, they should not be expected to end any further environmental changes over time.

A second idea popular with policymakers is the polluter pays principle. This is usually presented as a tax of a few dollars on every barrel of oil. The added costs are supposed to disincentivise the production of carbon emissions and the income raised used to fund mitigation projects. The principle is excellent as a means of funding environmental protection efforts. But the problem remains that polluters can pollute as much as they can pay - and the damage caused may be beyond repair, as the IPCC now says is increasingly the case.

A final alternative is to look to science and utilise new technological advances. Greater energy efficiency, reforestation, investment in green transport, promoting recycling and eco-friendly sanitation are also essential. The climate has already changed, and some measure of adaptation is unavoidable. One issue is that many of the technological advancements required in how we create and use energy are either not widely used or not invented. A second issue is that when advancements happen it can be a mixed blessing. For example, travelling and heating have become cheaper but they have also contributed to longer commute distances and raising heating temperature in our homes. Technology is necessary, but not sufficient to meet the challenges we face.

Each of these policies have advocates who claim they are an end-state solution. Yet, none by themselves can prevent an environmental catastrophe. This does not mean, however, that we should do nothing because such an event may be unavoidable.


Reconceiving Sustainability

We need to reconceive sustainability. Too often 'sustainable' is used to mean a permanent state of affairs, whereby our approach to climate change can permanently bring about a “happy ever after” without further change. Instead, we need to introduce the concept of impermanent sustainability for our endangered world. We can no more stop the climate from changing than we can the planet from turning. We must learn to live in an ever-changing environment where we aim to reduce our exposure to the risk of catastrophe, but without believing it is in our power to forever prevent it from happening if only a global cap on emissions is agreed.

We can no more stop the climate from changing than we can the planet from turning.

This doesn’t mean we should be any less serious about a cap. Perhaps we should be even more so. Significant reduction in greenhouse gases, raised funds from a tax on carbon emissions and major investment in green technologies are vital. This is because their combination can contribute to delaying what may be inevitable, buying time for us to prepare as best as possible, and to soften as best we can the impact of any such major event.  Impermanent sustainability is a state of constant awareness and action with a commitment to do more, not less, where we can.

Even if climate change is unavoidable, it should not demotivate us into doing nothing. This would make a bad situation many times worse by hastening a calamitous event to happen more quickly, with potentially greater force and to more devastating effect.

COP26 has an enormous task on its hands. The IPCC report correctly and clearly spells out the deadly serious situation we find ourselves in. But rather than searching for an elusive solution to a problem that may not go away, we should be looking to ramp up efforts to plan more for a future in which we’ll be living in the shadow of an upcoming catastrophe. Such an analysis may be sobering, but an injection of such realism now - and not later - can help us better focus on the task at hand and for the long haul. There's no simple solution and we should see climate change as a challenge that we seek to manage, if unable to control and end. 

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