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What Scale Relevant Lessons Should We Take From the Climate Change Story?


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Human Economic Activities Alter Global Systems

It is a remarkable and unprecedented event in the history of a planet when a single species alters a planetary system that is responsible for many of the life-support systems of the planet. This is precisely what has happened with the growth of human economic activities over the past 150 years.  


This simple fact should give the world’s nations and peoples pause for reflection on the implications of such an event. This fact reflects both the success of humanity, and the possible source of its unintended self-destruction.


The collapse of civilizations seems to rest on a civilization’s inability to alter some of the beliefs and practices that led to their original success1.  This insight suggests radical changes are required in how we view economic growth and its relationship to the biophysical limits of global ecosystems.  Sustainable scale presents an alternative perspective.


Temporal Disconnects Obscure the Sustainable Scale Problem for Climate

Greenhouse gases have the characteristic of enduring for many decades in the earth’s atmosphere, and as their concentrations accumulate the heat-trapping qualities of these gases also accumulate over time.  There is a significant temporal disconnect between the activities involved in emitting the gases and their long term impact on climate stability. 


There is an even longer disconnect between the responsible activities and the affects of climate change on the well-being of most life on the planet. The anthropogenic emissions in the 1850’s are responsible for the climate change that is now being detected. These climate changes will continue into the foreseeable future, and their full impact will be felt by future generations.  These temporal disconnects make it difficult for humans to grasp the full implications of their actions.


Unsustainable Scale is Both Irresponsible and Dangerous

Economic throughput that exceeds the regenerative capacities of global life-support systems is unsustainable.  This means these activities are actually creating costs that will inevitably exceed any possible short term benefits that may ensue from these activities.  But unfortunately, we do not accurately account for these ecological and life-support costs with the same rigour and obsessive precision that we record financial costs.


Unsustainable activities mean that a threshold is crossed beyond which the ecological services provided by nature (e.g. climate stability) will decline (see Sustainable Or Unsustainable).  The greater the decline the less service will be available and eventually it will, in theory, decline to zero.  While it is doubtful that even human activities can bring us to this undesirable point (as there is only so much carbon to circulate), there is little doubt that we are headed in this direction and that the consequences will be dire.


Because of the dangers involved, there is a considerable moral imperative to manage our economic activities so that we respect sustainable scale.


Transition to Prevention Needed

We are beginning to learn that “end of pipe” solutions to local pollution problems are more costly and difficult to implement than redesigning the operation to not emit the pollution in the first place.  This approach is also needed in dealing with global scale issues of sustainability. 


Becoming dependent on activities that are predictably unsustainable creates enormous financial, ecological and political difficulties that are extremely difficult to disentangle.  The complexities of the climate issue  demonstrate what might have been avoided if, for example, the world listened to Arhenius’ warnings in the late 1800’s about the dangers of fossil fuel combustion (although he was not aware of the even greater impact at the time of human land use practices). 


The precautionary principle is a critical perspective to incorporate into a wide variety of human economic activities that have the potential to exceed sustainable scale.


Sustainable Scale Perspective Essential

While reasonable arguments can be made that sustainable scale for greenhouse gas emissions was exceeded in the 1850’s, this point is debatable.  The main point here is that attempting to identify a sustainable scale for human activities is essential to human well-being. 


A sustainable scale perspective requires that we ask a series of questions about our activities and their long term consequences, ensuring that the costs incurred are less than the benefits. It requires that we review the ecological consequences of our activities, as well as their impact on current and future generations of humans and other living creatures. 


An international agreement on climate change will inevitably fail humanity if does not set an emission target that is clearly within sustainable scale.


 1 Diamond, J.  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking Press, New York, 2005.

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