Fighting Climate Change Is Not About Environmentalism

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/fighting-climate-change-is-not-about-environmentalism/245483/