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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

What We Are Really Worried About When We Worry About Climate Change

I'm not a big fan of "climate change." By that, I don't mean I think the science behind climate change is bad (it's not). And I don't mean that climate change is not important (it is). But as a water law and policy scholar, I feel like there is an expectation that my work reference, or tie back into, climate change. And I think that is backwards. Climate change is a bad framework within which to talk about sustainability challenges in general. When we worry about climate change, what we're generally worrying about is water. And "climate change" just fails to capture that worry in a way that motivates the public and policymakers. I think we would get more traction with the public and policymakers if we framed the problem around water rather than climate.

The climate change framework fails to explain our problem and motivate action for two reasons.

First, most people don’t care and probably never will as long the conversation between climate change scientists and the general public continues to look something like this:

Climate scientist: “You should really worry about climate change.”

General public: “Why? I love climate change – leaves changing colors, flowers blooming…”

Climate scientist: “No, I mean global warming.”

General public: “I would love a warmer globe – stupid arctic vortex.”

Climate scientist: “No, I mean it could get two, maybe four degrees warmer over the next couple of decades.”

General public: “It’s going to get that much warmer over the next few hours, Dr. Oblivious.”

Climate scientist: “No, this could cause sea level rise…”

General public: “I’ll be closer to the beach!”

Climate scientist: “No, polar ice caps will melt, polar bears will…”

General public: “Never seen a polar ice cap or a polar bear, and don’t really want to.”

Climate scientist: “But greenhouse gases, including carbon emissions from…”

General public: “You lost me, Professor.”

The second reason the climate change framework has failed is that it’s incomplete. Climate change is an aggravating factor to a bigger and more imminent problem. In the next 15 years, global population growth and economic development will increase demand for food, water, and energy by 50%, regardless of climate change. We need a unified sustainability theory – something that integrates all of our sustainability challenges. We need to re-brand our sustainability challenge in a way that makes sense to the general public, motivates policymakers, and accounts for growing food and energy demands along with the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. We should focus less on "climate change" and more on "water security."

Water security means an acceptable quantity and quality of water at acceptable costs and risks. It directly addresses the only reasons climate change matters to most people – threats of droughts, floods, disease, and wars. Drought in California and Brazil, water protests in Michigan and Ireland, water-related conflict in Iraq and Syria, cholera outbreaks in Haiti and Ghana, floods in South Carolina and the Philippines – these are the problems encompassed and emphasized by the water security framework because they are the problems that the majority of people relate to and understand from experience. And framing our policies around water not only appropriately prioritizes our problems – it better integrates them. That is because water is not just the most important thing. Water is everything.

Virtually every major societal problem could be meaningfully addressed by focusing more on water security. Many of the major violent conflicts around the globe have an important and under-appreciated water component. It is not a coincidence that the rise of ISIS in Syria or the Taliban in Afghanistan coincided with historic droughts in those countries. Much of the immigration and refugee challenges confronting the globe are merely an example of people doing what they have done for thousands of years – leaving water insecurity in search of water security. One of the leading causes of gender inequality globally is a lack of educational opportunities for girls and young women, and one of the leading obstacles to those opportunities is the role many girls and young women play in water gathering in developing nations. Thousands die each day from water-based and water-borne diseases.

One way we can shift away from the climate change and toward water security is by abandoning carbon footprints as a metric of sustainability, and focus instead on water footprints. Water security deals directly with the growing demand for food and energy, because the energy and agriculture sectors are our largest water consumers. Food, light, air conditioning, heat, and clothes have enormous amounts of water embedded in them or in their production – a concept called “virtual water.” If we move water security to the forefront in our discussions about sustainability, we will integrate climate change concerns with the problems associated with increasing global consumption patterns because we will account for water throughout the chain of production in agriculture and energy. It also integrates the ecologic and economic impacts of low carbon energy sources like nuclear energy, hydroelectric, biofuels, wind, and solar. Water footprints will also account for water lost to resource contamination. But more than anything, replacing carbon with water in our sustainability dialogue will help us talk about what is really worrying us.

Posted by Rhett Larson on October 7, 2015 at 06:07 PM | Permalink

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