BIG QUESTION: Climate Change or Environment??

Dr Martin J Hodson

“Yes, we have other pressing problems to solve. And climate change is just one axis in the multidimensional problem that is environmental and societal sustainability. I don’t purport to propose, in this book, the solution to all that ails us as a civilization. I do, however, offer what I see as a path forward on climate.”

So said Michael Mann towards the end of his recent book, “The New Climate War”. It is just a few sentences, but for me, they raise possibly the biggest difficulty of all. How to start? I have become increasingly worried that we are not seeing “climate change is just one axis in the multidimensional problem”, but many people are seeing it as the ONLY problem. It very definitely is not. I have always liked the quote by American biologist and anthropologist, Jared Diamond, from one of his TED talks in 2003: “There are a dozen things, any one of which could do us in, and we have got to get them all right.” Diamond is surely correct and we could “solve” climate change and our civilization could sink because of biodiversity loss, soil degradation or a number of other problems. Or take “Planetary Boundaries”, first proposed by Rockström et al in 2009 and revised by Steffen et al in 2015. In the 2015 version, they see the big issues as: biogeochemical flows (essentially human interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles); land system change (change in land use); biosphere integrity (mainly biodiversity loss); and climate change. If climate change did not exist, we would still have a major environmental crisis! I need to give full disclosure here and admit that this more holistic approach, looking at the whole range of environmental problems, was the one we took in our 2015 book (recently updated for the 2nd edition in 2021) “A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues.” But I think the difficulty I am alluding to in this blog post has certainly become much more acute since 2015.

The estuary of the Afon Mawddach near Barmouth in Mid-Wales

We very definitely have a multifaceted environmental problem. But in the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned that many seem to equate “environment” with “climate change”. So dioceses or churches set up an environmental group, and what do they discuss? Climate change. I get invited to speak about the environment, and the publicity says I will speak on the “climate emergency”. I read many essays from students, articles in newspapers, blogs, and promotional materials where the writers switch between “environment” and “climate change” as if they were totally interchangeable terms. Some activists are quite aware of the problem and seek to give some balance. For example, Greta Thunberg often talks about, “The Climate and Ecological Emergency”, but it then gets shortened by the press and others to “the climate emergency”. I know I am far from the only person to be concerned about this, and I not infrequently raise it. But somehow climate change seems to have become so big that it blanks out everything else.

It seems almost heretical to write this, but have Michael Mann, Sir John Houghton, and to a very, very much lesser extent, myself, been almost too successful in promoting climate action? I have to emphasise here that I have not suddenly turned into a climate sceptic, and I still consider climate change to be a massive problem, and possibly the biggest one. But it is not the only one.

So my question then is, are we overemphasising climate change with respect to other very serious environmental problems? In “The New Climate War”, Michael Mann sees the fossil fuel lobby using deflection away from themselves as a major tactic in disarming climate action, and I could very easily see them saying that the bigger problem we had to tackle was biodiversity loss, and not climate change. How do we avoid this turning into yet another type of deflection? I can foresee arguments among environmentalists over which problem to focus on, leading to inaction on everything. It is very important that we get this right. How do we balance concern for the climate with concern for all the other environmental issues? I would be very happy to hear what other people think about this, but please remember to be kind to each other!

Dr Martin J Hodson

JRI Operations Director

Photo: Martin Hodson