Why Addressing Climate Change Is Not Enough

This post was coauthored by Anne-Emanuelle Birn, MA, ScD, Ben Brisbois, MES, PhD and Timothy H. Holtz, MD, MPH.

The celebratory mood accompanying the recent Paris Accord, in which the entire UN membership agreed to hold global temperature increases to no more than 2°C, is quickly dissipating. As the Accord itself acknowledges, there is a “significant gap” between countries’ climate change mitigation pledges and the 2°C goal (not to mention the more aspirational 1.5° C limit). This means that promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, even if realized, will be insufficient to stave off major consequences of climate change.

Yet bolder pledges alone will not prevent impending failure because the Paris Accord reproduces the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol. Although reporting is binding, countries face no penalties for missing their targets. Most of all, market-based schemes for emissions reductions enable wealthy countries and corporations to continue “business as usual” by paying low emitters for their pollution rights, ultimately stalling real and equitable progress. As we write, environmental groups across the world are gearing up to challenge these shortcomings.

But before this struggle — and the planet — gets even more heated, it is worth examining the larger context of environmental stewardship. The central issue, which goes beyond climate change, is degradation — that is, the depletion and contamination of the earth’s resources.

Climate change both exacerbates environmental degradation, and results from a growth-at-all-costs economic system that makes certain groups — especially indigenous peoples and marginalized and low-income populations — particularly vulnerable to both climate change and resource scarcity and contamination. Recognizing this fact can help climate-related activism and policymaking do a better job of protecting the planet and all who depend on it.

Focusing on single temperature-change targets (and the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions levels required —> Read More