Professor Ian Spellerberg
The very high awareness about climate change is displacing a number of equally urgent policy issues, argues Ian Spellerberg.
Climate change is now firmly on the international agenda as one of the most pressing issues of our time. The few dissenting voices on whether we should act have gradually coalesced into a new Flat Earth Society. They are occasionally noisy, but ultimately irrelevant.
The idea of human activities altering the climate is not new – it has been around for at least 100 years - the difference now is that the rate of human-induced climate change is far higher and of a greater magnitude than previously predicted. So could there be anything worse than the long-term and widespread effects of climate change?
Sadly, there is. Climate change is only one symptom of a biosphere under enormous pressure from a dominant species living beyond its means. As a result, the natural world is being consumed at an alarming rate. Marine life is being mined to the point of exhaustion – the North Atlantic cod fishery was among the first to reach total collapse and others will surely follow.
The rate of soil degradation and soil loss internationally is greater than ever before. South American forests that give us air to breath are being torched to produce cheaper hamburger patties. We fight insect pests with chemicals only to find that the chemicals remain in the ecosystems and the pests become resistant. We dump our waste into the seas, the air and the ground. Nature’s natural ability to absorb this waste can no longer cope. We refer to these unwanted bi-products as pollution, which we promise to clean up when the economy is stronger, and we treat the mess as a temporary - or at the very least reversible. But we very rarely make the leap from the concept of today’s pollution being part of a systematic degradation of what supports us. We live in a world where goods are designed to fail after an acceptable period, so that we become unwilling but recidivists consumers.
If all this sounds rather dreary, let’s reflect on the evidence. The most compelling evidence comes in the form of the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in March 2005. It identified the intense vulnerability of two billion people to the loss of ecosystem services in dry regions, and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution. It concluded that we are all dependent on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for decent, healthy, and secure life, and that human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well being.
This is a global view, but New Zealand is certainly no exception. The average lifestyle in New Zealand (measured as an ecological footprint) is not sustainable and we are living beyond what nature can provide. We have a very high per capita use of cars. We produce more waste per capita than most other countries in the world, our marine ecosystems have been over-exploited, we have urban sprawl and subdivision of rural land is unfettered.
What can be done? Ultimately our success as a species will depend on everyone treating nature and natural systems as the most fundamental aspect of sustainability. This was very much the intention of the U.N. declaring a Decade of Education for Sustainability (2005-2014), but after three years of this programme it’s difficult to see any major shift in our collective view of the world. The new schools curriculum makes some mention of ecological sustainability, which is a good step, but it needs to be followed by changes in the core of tertiary education systems. Universities in particular are a long way from making education for sustainability a mainstream concept for every course.
Government has a responsibility for ensuring that New Zealand really is a clean and green country. There are many good initiatives, but there is so much more to do. The Department of Conservation is all too often perceived as an organisation protecting nature, rather than an agency with a central role in our sustainable development. The Ministry for the Environment will soon launch the second State of the New Zealand Environment, but we have to wonder why it is 10 years after the first.
In summary, we have even bigger fish to fry than climate change. We are exploiting nature to the extent that we are no longer living sustainability. The good things such as air, water and soil for growing food will simply not last under the present system of incremental degradation. We have to accept that different lifestyles will become the norm. Yes, climate change will contribute to the loss of species, and the loss of any species is an indicator that we are not living sustainably. Climate change will have long-lasting impacts on the world’s ecological systems. But in addition to that, humans are exploiting the diversity of nature and nature’s goods and services at a far greater rate than ever before.
The awareness about climate change is of course fully justified, but we should not see this as the underlying issue of sustainability. The key issue, in my opinion, is the unsustainable use of nature and ecosystems.
Professor Ian Spellerberg is Director of the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation at Lincoln University.