A Holistic Approach to Climate Change
Over the past generation, climate change has been thought of as a series of discrete problems that can be addressed individually. But to address climate change effectively, we must think about climate holistically, as a range of interconnected problems that must be tackled together.
When we think of climate change, certain images come to mind: melting ice caps, razed and smoky rainforests, hurricanes pelting battered coastlines, and wildfires blazing through mountains. If pressed for a solution, we think of a range of options: installing solar panels, planting new forests, divesting from oil companies, driving electric cars, and buying eco-friendly products.
We each have a lens on climate change, its impact and a solution, and each lens is very personal. In this sense, climate change is a Rorschach test — a test of our individual perceptions in response to ambiguous stimuli and, in this case, a reflection of our personal relationship with our global ecosystem.
But while each of us has an individual relationship with climate, we cannot afford to address it in a piecemeal fashion. Climate change is a broad-reaching, amorphous set of phenomena with many different routes to resolution. The changes that are occurring come about through multiple, complex, and interacting forces that in turn affect our daily lives.
To address this complexity, we must move beyond Rorschach, and think broadly and holistically about the range of issues we now face. Over the next generation, we must solve three major problems: we must manage the changes that are already here or are on the horizon; we must slow the rate of that change; and we must shift to cleaner energy.
Adaptation is all about managing the changes that we are already experiencing, as well as those that are already in motion and cannot be stopped. For example, we must learn to adapt to higher sea levels, as well as to more extreme storms and natural events. This means that we must work resiliency into our infrastructure – stronger buildings, roads that don’t flood as easily, and plan for the events that we will start to see in the near and medium term future, such as migration and water shortages.
Mitigation relates to reducing carbon and other emissions and slowing the pace of climate change. This is a policy, engineering, and finance issue. Climate advocates have been pushing companies, capital providers, and governments to reduce emissions for a generation; and the pace of change is increasing as the impact of climate change becomes more immediate and clear. Public institutions must continue to hold emitters accountable for the impact on our planet’s climate, so that financial resources are channeled away from these areas.
Creating cleaner energy sources requires an entirely new global infrastructure that will require trillions of dollars of investment annually. This energy transition will require both energy production, such as renewables, like solar and wind power, as well as the connective infrastructure — electric vehicles, storage facilities, digitization — to channel this energy into new uses. We need tremendous amounts of capital — trillions of dollars each year for the foreseeable future — as well as ingenuity and innovation to succeed in this transition.
If climate were a stool, it would have three legs. And without all three legs, it just won’t work. There are two reasons for this. First, time is not our friend, and we simply cannot afford to wait in tackling any of these challenges. The damage to our existing infrastructure from climate events and changes will be enormous, and it will become unaffordable to repair or rebuild if we wait too long. Without slowing down the pace of change, the impact will accelerate to a point that is unmanageable. If we don’t create new infrastructure, we will be forced to revert to carbon-producing energy sources.
Second, these problems are highly interconnected and interdependent. Resilient infrastructure must be clean and based on low-emission energy sources. For instance, retrofitted office buildings will need to be able to withstand flooding and wind, but they will need to consume less energy. The transition from fossil fuels to new energy sources requires us to think of both decarbonization and new technologies. We must, for instance, close down coal plants as we reallocate capital to wind farms. Any new energy production or clean technologies must be resilient and incorporate low or zero-carbon capabilities. Solar facilities must be built to withstand extreme weather in order to be operational and to provide a positive financial return over the long life of the initial investment.
Climate does not care if we think of it as a series of discrete problems or as a set of highly interrelated problems. But we must care. We must move beyond Rorschach, beyond our individuated and discrete responses, and reimagine climate change as a set of profound, pervasive problems with uneven impact that are parts of a broader whole. This approach will let us start thinking about pathways to solutions in ways that are smarter and better suited for the scale of the problem that is upon us.
John is an entrepreneur and business strategist who works at the intersection of technology, finance, and climate change. He embraces fresh perspectives, creative problem solving, and unconventional approaches in solving global problems. John is currently working on technology-driven investment ideas to help the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Alan Loehle has been living and painting in Atlanta, Georgia since 1987. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting, two Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants, a Visual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Elizabeth Foundation grant, among others. His work resides in private and public collections throughout the United States and in England, and has been featured in numerous publications, including The Paris Review, Art Papers Magazine and, most recently, Research in Phenomenology. Loehle is a Professor of Studio Art at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. He is represented by Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta.