Fighting Climate Change Is Not About Environmentalism

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I've been kicking around an idea recently that crystallized in the form of a short "Room for Debate" op-ed on green jobs that I wrote for The New York Times yesterday. Here's the relevant snip:

The president should remind people that stopping global warming isn't about nature or "saving the planet." Some set of plants and animals will survive. Human infrastructure is what's in danger. We've built cities predicated on one climate and now those places have a new one. Climactic chaos is expensive.

The nugget of the argument here is the framing fighting climate change as a way to help nature is flawed. Even in a really clear example of climate-induced ecological change -- the loss of many species in the forests Thoreau explored near Walden Pond -- other species are doing just fine. We're changing the ecosystem, but life isn't leaving the forest. We're applying a very certain kind of filter on the forest (specifically, which plants can change their flowering time quickly) but life there survives because ecosystems, even those stressed by rising temperatures, are resilient.

Human-built environments, on the other hand, are very efficient and very brittle. They function best in a very narrow set of temperature and precipitation conditions. Witness what happens when it snows in Portland or it gets very hot in a cold place or it rains somewhere where it's always dry. A people as rich as Americans can deal with any climate, but only if we put the right infrastructure in place. People in Buffalo have snow plows. People in Phoenix have air conditioners.

Now start fiddling with the climate of the place. Most of the time things are fine, but when you hit an extreme that you don't normally (floods, snow, heat, etc), stuff starts to go haywire. The infrastructure you built is encountering conditions it wasn't designed to withstand. And so it breaks. (See a similar argument I made specific to cities in 2010.)

Somehow polar bears became the charismatic emblem of what was wrong with global warming; I think we should have made it a mayor instead.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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