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Cylvia Hayes Headshot

The Wrong Question

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It's been said that if you ask the wrong questions the answers don't matter. And yet, on issues of monumental importance we are asking the wrong questions.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just issued its fifth assessment report called Mitigation of Climate Change. It paints a stark picture of how continuously increasing rates of greenhouse gas emissions are altering our oceans, air and food production.

Scientists largely agree that going above a two-degree Celsius rise in global mean temperature will result in catastrophic disruptions to weather patterns, ecosystems, sea level rise and our ability to grow food. According to the fifth assessment report, it would be possible, using a wide array of technological measures and changes in behavior, to limit the temperature increase to two degrees but it would require major institutional and technological change. And even with that we may still need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through carbon capture and storage techniques that are not yet fully developed.

This report is the most direct and urgent call to action yet by the IPCC. But it fails to ask the right question or address the real issue.

The report analyzes the economic implications of climate action using the consumption rate as its metric for economic performance. The IPCC notes that in business-as-usual scenarios, global consumption grows by 1.6 to 3 percent per year. The report estimates that ambitious climate change mitigation would reduce this growth by an average 0.06 percentage points a year.

Although not quantified the report does note that climate change mitigation actions would likely produce some economic benefits from energy conservation and reduced impacts to human health and ecosystems. However, the report grossly under-values the costs that would be avoided if we were able to avert the massive ecological upheaval resulting from rampant climate change and the higher-end possibilities of temperature and sea level rise. This emphasis on the cost of action without accounting for the cost of inaction keeps the decision-making playing field skewed and uneven.

But there is an even bigger problem with this IPCC report and the way it is being interpreted. The report notes that "economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The contribution of population growth between 2000 and 2010 remained roughly identical to the previous three decades, while the contribution of economic growth has risen sharply."

And yet, the IPCC report does not make the connection that the single biggest barrier to reducing global warming emissions is our pre-dominant economic model based on consumption and externalized costs.

At some point we must come to grips with the fact that you cannot have an economy that requires ever-escalating rates of natural resource consumption on a planet of finite natural resources.

Economic growth in and of itself is not a guaranteed pathway to global prosperity and progress and indeed, under our current economic model, economic growth is the biggest driver accelerating climate change. We have to start asking the right questions: growth of what and for what?

I do not make light of the fact that millions of people are not able to consume enough to meet even basic survival needs. And millions more do not have adequate sanitation and housing or access to transportation. Clearly we need to grow food supplies and distribution channels and increase the general level of consumption for people being ravaged by poverty and severely limited resources.

However, we are going to have to do this in a way that reduces our overall, global consumption of natural resources. We simply will not be able to sustain an economic model that defies the laws of physics by consuming natural resources faster than they can be regenerated and spewing more waste into the system than the system can effectively process.

The IPCC report makes the case that taking action to mitigate climate change will harm the economy by reducing consumption rates. And yet, escalating consumption is a primary driver of accelerating climate change. In order to really turn the corner on climate change we are going to have to evolve our economic and business models in several key ways. One, we need to stop externalizing costs and make polluters pay at the source rather than forcing the rest of us to pick up the tab for the mess afterwards. In other words we need to put a price on carbon and other pollutants that are currently pumped free of charge into our skies and oceans.

Two we need to move beyond the limitless growth model. We need to figure out how to grow jobs that solve society's problems -- restore our environment, care for our vulnerable citizens - rather than just jobs making stuff for consumers who already have plenty of stuff. There are many examples of companies doing exactly this as evidenced by the growing B Corps movement. And we need to get serious about cradle-to-cradle materials flow, finding value-added ways to eliminate natural resource waste. Again examples abound: dairies turning cow manure into energy; huge waste management companies capturing landfill gas to heat buildings and power cars; clothing companies recycling used textiles into new textiles.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to better assess what our economic system is actually delivering for us. The burgeoning Beyond GDP movement is a very hopeful development as states and nations are working to develop tools to assess not just whether our economies are getting bigger, but whether they are actually making us better off.

The climate may be a force of nature or an act of God but the economy is not. It is a human-made construct and we can change it. Our natural resources are finite; our human creativity is not.

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