The Other Big Ticking Time Bomb

By Keith Kloor | April 16, 2010 2:30 pm

**UPDATE: Stuart Pimm, the highly respected conservation biologist at Duke University, emailed me his thoughts on the climate change/global land use dichotomy that is implied by my post. It’s an important perspective. Stuart has given me permission to publish his email in its entirety. You can find it below at this comment.**

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the debate over climate change science, politics, and policy is that it’s elbowed all other environmental issues off the public stage. This has to drive ecologists crazy. But it seems they’re all laying low in the (invasive) weeds. I don’t see any of them challenging the dominant belief that global warming is the single biggest environmental threat of the day.

Note that I said, of the day. Because I agree with the notion that climate change could well wreak havoc on society and life-supporting ecosystems later in this century. However, we got another tiny little problem on our hands that may do us in long before we overdose on carbon emissions. It’s known within the ecological community as global land use, an innocuous-sounding term even more confusing and vague than global warming. Who knows, maybe that’s one reason why so few are paying attention to it.

Fortunately, some scientists have tried to raise the worrisome profile of global land use. Last October, at Yale Environment Environment 360, Jonathan Foley wrote that there was “an unintended downside” to the sudden emergence of global warming as the most popular environmental concern:

In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

Although I’m a climate scientist by training, I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting another, equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.

Just so we’re clear: Foley is not pulling this out of the clouds. As he mentions, there’s a solid body of work on global land use that’s been accumulating over the last decade. The trends are very, very worrisome. Chew on this and this just for starters, if you need to get up to speed. Last spring, when I was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, I took a course in global land use that blew my mind. Midway through, I was convinced that it easily rivals climate change as a meta environmental issue of urgent concern.

Since then, I’ve also become convinced that the Resilience Alliance represents one of the best conceptual paradigms to address the complex human/ecological relationship.  I wish their blog played a meaningful role in the public debate, but they don’t seem to have the appetite for engaging in the messy and cacophonous daily conversation.

Anyway, all this brings me to a news release from earlier this week that Tom Yulsman made me aware of. It’s a commentary on the ecological factors that have led scientists to informally define the current age we live in as the “Anthropocene.” As the authors of the essay note, the term was coined a decade ago,

at a time of dawning realization that human activity was indeed changing the Earth on a scale comparable with some of the major events of the ancient past. Some of these changes are now seen as permanent, even on a geological time-scale.

The authors carefully argue that the immensity of human-induced change on the earth warrants serious consideration of the “Anthropocene” term being adopted as a new, formal geological designation. But in my reading, they use the build-up of greenhouse gases to make their case. The equally large impacts from agiculture and urbanization seem to be downplayed.

To me, this represents a missed opportunity to put global land use on an equal par with climate change. But it does perhaps reflect the zietgeist that Foley was lamenting in his Yale 360 piece. It also makes me think that a reframing of the climate change debate–centered on “jumpstarting a clean energy revolution,” rather than combating future environmental harms–is the way to go. It not only would chart a less contentious path to a carbon-free energy policy, but it would free up the necessary political and media space for present-day environmental concerns, such as those already in evidence from global land use.

UPDATE: In a perceptive comment below, Geoff Dabelko, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, explains why it’s necessary to find ways to bridge the land use vs climate change dichotomy. He also cautions:

It cannot be a zero sum game in examining one versus another in part because the interconnections make it impossible and counterproductive but also because action will ultimately be limited on key fronts.

  • Steve Bloom

    Keith, you are *such* an idiot.  The worst of it is that you presume that most environmentalists and scientists have missed something obvious yet fundamental.  Oh, so wait, I guess that makes you a Galileo (in the sense meant by climate denialists).

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Nice rejoinder, Steve.  In case you didn’t bother linking on to the Yale Env 360 essay by Foley, here’s something else he said:

    So, what are the solutions to the global land crisis? Here are just a few to start with:

    First, acknowledge the problem. Even in circles of well-informed scientists and agricultural experts, the notion that our land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global environmental threat comes as a big surprise. Clearly we need to have a larger international conversation about this issue, on par with the recent efforts of the climate change community and Al Gore, to give it the attention it deserves.

    Foley must be an idiot too, heh? You know, Steve, it’s people like you who really give environmentalists a bad name.

  • Steve Bloom

    Let’s see, Keith, I have a long personal history of land use activism and you don’t, and FYI I’ve been worrying about the problem described by Foley since sometime in the ’90s, so what is it exactly that entitles you to sit in your armchair and criticize me?  You are become Broder. 

    BTW, try cracking open the AR4 WG1 SPM sometime and see how it treats land use change.  The problem Foley describes isn’t on the part of climate scientists or environmentalists, it’s a failing of the media.  Imagine that.

    This sort of nuance is entirely lost on you, but for anyone else reading this I should add that I think Foley’s framing of the problem as quoted above by Keith is incorrect.  So we hold up land use next to climate change and ask people to give them equal attention, but what about population, consumption, resource depletion, ocean acidification, extinctions, and arguably a few others?  What’s the rationale for excluding those?  (And note that in the comments to the article Foley makes it clear that he thinks such things must be accounted for as well.)  Of course they’re all important and need to be considered together, and indeed cannot be properly considered separately.  But people can only pay attention to so much at once, so it makes sense to prioritize the worst of them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    Steve,

    I think I see what your problem is. You’re personalizing this–as if I’m impugning your long enviro creds. I would expect that enviros to be aware of soil degradation, overfishing, loss of biodiversity, etc. And enviro/science journalists too. Hell, I covered it all for nearly ten years at Audubon magazine.

    But what Foley and his colleagues are saying is that the totality of global land use change is really starting to be quantified and studied in much more depth over the last decade.  The implications are stark, he writes:

    From these newly revealed facts, it’s clear that we must consider multiple inconvenient truths. The future of our civilization and our planet requires that we simultaneously address the grand challenges of climate change and land use, ultimately finding new ways to meet the needs of our economy, our security and the environment. Anything less will be a complete catastrophe.

    Clearly, you don’t accept this, because you want the focus to remain squarely on global warming.  And because you and many of your fellow environmentalists shout imminent climate catastrophe from the rooftops, that focus remains climate change (with a little help from us).

    Now, you do offer one sensible observation: “…people can only pay attention to so much at once, so it makes sense to prioritize…”

    That’s a legitimite and compelling argument to make, in my mind. Which is why I’m suggesting that climate advocates consider changing their frame–from climate catastrophe to energy revolution.

    Because if you’re right and human nature requires us to prioritize, then maybe that’s the only way global land use impacts (and all the contributing factors you list) will be addressed: if we move climate out of that climate catastrophe box. After all, how many impending planetary catastrophes can people digest and act on at the same time?

  • klem

    Oh cluck cluck cluck to all of you.

  • Steve Bloom

    The problem with the incipient climate catastrophe is precisely its lack of imminence, i.e. the commitment to it long before the catastrophe dinosaurs come home to roost.  Somehow you fail to grasp this.  Once we see the first catastrophic symptoms it will be too damned late to do much of anything about most of them.

    Bear in mind that climate change will induce land use change on a far greater scale than humans have managed thus far using more direct means.

    The difficulty with an energy frame as the primary basis for action is that we are guaranteed to fall far too short if we don’t have a guide to tell us how much we need to do how soon.  Substituting a weaker lever when a stronger one has initially failed to move a rock is poor strategy.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Steve,

    I’m surprised that such an avid reader of my blog would forget my numerous posts on the paradox of the “incipient climate catastrophe” that is by no means imminent. Here’s the most recent one to refresh your memory.

    You’re really making my argument for me by bringing this up. This lack of real negative, harmful impacts to the average person from climate change is the biggest impediment to policy action. Everybody knows this. It’s damn hard selling potential civilizational collapse in 2100.

    That’s why we have such fierce debates over heat waves and wildfires and droughts when climate advocates try to link them to climate change. It hasn’t worked. 

    That’s why U.S pols are about to pivot to a new frame next week with the rollout of the senate climate bill. Not a peep on climate change; it’s going to be green jobs and climate security, I’m guessing. I’m not sure it’s going to fly but it will be much tougher for Morano to parody. (Remember, he lives off the enviro doom and gloom stuff, but he stays away from taking on the military, which I’ve pointed out on several occasions.)

    I’m not saying the energy frame is a slam dunk. But it’s debatable whether it’s a weaker lever. What is not debatable is that the strategy Romm et al have pursued–scary talk about climate catastrophe fifty to 100 years from now–has not worked. (And don’t blame the skeptics for sowing doubt–that’s such a red herring. You just admitted that the lack of imminent doom is the principal problem here.) So how long are you prepared to stay with a failed strategy before you try something new?

  • http://www.wilsoncenter.org/ecsp Geoff Dabelko

    Bridging the climate vs. land use could and should come through a couple of avenues.  There is a need to “bring climate down” to the ground level where its impacts are examined through different impacts on various resources and biophysical processes and importantly the social responses to them.  Climate change will be part of the mix driving these changes and in some cases the key but it can be viewed within the larger context.  It cannot be a zero sum game in examining one versus another in part because the interconnections make it impossible and counterproductive but also because action will ultimately be limited on key fronts. 

    Another avenue for bridging the dichotomy set up here is greater diversity in the framing and focus of what we mean when we say climate or particularly responses to climate change.  It has in the main been shorthand for mitigation and efforts to reduce emissions, built in part on a case established by a better understanding of impacts.  The mechanisms are present at all political levels but the global level and the UNFCCC process dominates the approach and the airwaves.  Far behind in terms of attention or resources is adaptation, a response differing greatly in single let alone diverse settings.  Where we see high levels of vulnerability and low levels of emissions contributions in developing countries, adaptation is the focus and again, it is critical to bring climate down to the ground so to speak and understand how it plays within larger development (hopefully sustainable development) efforts.  The conversation on land use change is quite active here as it should be, whether climate a factor in it or not. And of course it must be.  So raising the profile of adaptation should be an avenue for integrating these conversations without needing to engage in a which is more important debate. 

    Topic for a different post would be how we need to diversity the notion of vulnerability away from Bangladesh has it and wealthy countries don’t because we can buy our way out of the worst impacts.  Different vulnerabilities, in part because of much lower types of adaptive capacity (we expect to have the tap run clean and if it doesn’t for a long time, we don’t deal well).

    And parenthetically, the public opinion optics of climate v energy at the moment means that for better or worse the frame for tackling this diverse basket of issue will more likely be energy than climate.  Comprehensive energy vs. energy only would be the semantic distinction which translates into climate and energy vs. just energy when getting down to what’s in a bill.

  • http://stephenleahy.net/ Stephen Leahy

    Millions are already affected by climate change: Inuit in the Arctic, subsistence farmers in India/Africa etc, etc. 325 billion in this report http://bit.ly/9eqKod
    I’ve talked to dozens to myself from four continents. Only folks in rich countries or rich people in poor countries can pretend climate change isn’t affecting them NOW.

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Steve, please back off yelling at Keith about everything. The CRU matter (where the tribalism of the press is at least as interesting a question as the tribalism of the climate science community) is not everything. And, after all, that is the point here.

    Since it is a point on which you and Keith agree, there is no point in calling him names on it.

    Keith, I don’t know who it is that argues that climate is more than a part of the sustainability puzzle. I certainly don’t, as I made clear in a recent article quoting Foley . I doubt that you will find many scientists making such a case.

    The point is that existential threats are existential threats. No one is more important than the others. We really need a passing grade on all of them.

    I do think it goes too far to say that ecologists are “driven crazy” by the prominence of climate change. In my experience, ecologists are more worked up about it than climate physics people. There are ecological threats here and ecological threats there, but climate change is a threat everywhere. There are many ecosystems which cannot be preserved even with modest climate change. With the high end climate change scenarios, no climax ecosystem anywhere will remain intact regardless of other measures including land use. So while I agree with much of what you say here, you do lead off with a bit of a clunker.

    I question the implication that there’s a finite amount of attention for the “environment” and all such”environmental”  concerns need to stay off in a small, bounded corner of our discourse. The “environment” is exactly that.

    The closest synonym is “context”: we exist in a context, in an environment. In the end, that concern dominates. Thinking about anything else is a luxury. Ask the Haitians about it.

    I do think all of our songs are getting tired. I agree that we need new approaches to discourse about the future that cut across concerns and provide some basis for optimism. But in order to be useful, those approaches can’t capitulate on the real scope of our problems.

  • Steve Bloom

    Michael, Keith was presenting me with plenty of opportunities to yell at him way before the CRU incident.  What’s frustrating is his repeated failure to think through the implications of the bright ideas he promotes.  Also, while I’m not the best communicator in the world, it’s hard to think of a positive response when he completely ignores my attempts to point out the problems with dropping a climate focus in favor of energy.

    Back to land use, I would note that after decades of struggle against large-scale urban sprawl, much of it onto prime agricultural land, the first meaningful anti-sprawl step California was able to take was a result of concern about climate change.  Let that be a lesson to you, Keith.

    What Stephen said, also.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Michael,

    You write: I agree that we need new approaches to discourse about the future that cut across concerns and provide some basis for optimism. But in order to be useful, those approaches can’t capitulate on the real scope of our problems.

    Your inference in the latter part of this statement, I’m guessing, is that climate change represents the “real scope.” That’s what I’m taking issue with in this post.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor
    From Stuart Pimm, Duke University conservation biologist, in an email to me:

    I share some of your concerns about climate change shoving off the table all the other concerns.

    Stephen Leahy’s point that climate disruption is harming people world wide is well-taken “” and he’s been chasing these stories with a particular ferocity for a long time.  (And funding them in a novel way, too!)  (Leahy is to whom #10 responds.)
    But, yes, land use changes are massive, “” again when you look for them in the right place.  Croplands, by and large, are NOT where to look.  The area of cropland has remained more or less stable at 15 million km^2 for 40 years or so and has not increased in direct proportion with human population in that interval.  But deforestation is huge, unsustainable and is largely not associated with an increase of food, even cattle production, since the land is so poor.   So, is it climate disruption or deforestation that worries me more?
    In terms of the numbers of species they will exterminate, provisional estimates are that both are as damaging.  Worse, is that they take out different, not overlapping, sets of species.
    I spent this week in DC, on the Hill “” asking the House and Senate to tackle both *simultaneously*.  Carbon emissions from burning tropical forests are 15% of the total “” a huge contribution. Such land use changes are the principal driver of species extinction, of course.  With colleagues, I handed out a letter signed by 200 forest scientists.
    Simply, it’s not “either-or” “” but both.
    What worries me is that I should have had to elbow my way into these offices, past the groups from Audubon, Sierra Club, WWF, CI, and the rest.  This is the biggest lever we environmentalists have to pull to stop land use change AND climate change.  Every environmentalist ought to be all over this issue, ensuring that Congress makes its Copenhagen pledge.
  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    “Your inference in the latter part of this statement, I’m guessing, is that climate change represents the “real scope.” That’s what I’m taking issue with in this post.”

    Huh???

    I am trying to agree with you and you won’t let me. Odd. Did you read my article which I linked?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    My bad, then, Michael, for misreading that. I did read that linked-to article. And I recognize that you are in agreement with the thrust of my post here.

    I think my larger point–which may be getting lost now– is that we’re all blogging and flaming over the climate change conundrum and that leaves little to none public space for other environmental issues, such as those that require our attention under the global land use umbrella.

  • Pingback: Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> The Engineered Earth

  • http://stephenleahy.net/ Stephen Leahy

    Just what is the CC conundrum?? As for land use changes I write about this all the time, along with pollution, overfishing etc… I admit some of those stories are difficult to get published. All this stuff is interconnected as Stuart suggests and we sure don’t need any more silo-thinking.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    Stephen:
    The CC conundrum is what to do about it, given that the worst impacts are not expected to hit until later in the century. Humans are not hardwired to act to prevent far-off future disaster. We are a reactive species.

    I am aware of your work and applaud it. In fact, given your own track record, I’m kinda surprised that you don’t agree with the supposition that not nearly enough attention is paid to those issues–because concerns over climate change has completely overshadowed them.

  • http://stephenleahy.net/ Stephen Leahy

    Keith as I mentioned in my first comment  CC is not just a far-off disaster it is having a major impact right now – just ask African farmers/herders, or those living in the Andes or Arctic etc. It’s already a survival issue for them and they are reacting as best they can.

    Our wealth buffers us from those impacts but we are largely responsible for CC, which is why this is a moral issue now and a survival issue later. What to do is simple: make a rapid switch to non-fossil fuel energy sources, stop deforestation, increase afforestation and so on.

    Not enough attention is paid to environmental issues including CC full stop. It’s stunning the detailed knowledge people have about baseball but don’t know what CO2 is or  that plants generate our oxygen. That’s sleepwalking into calamity.

  • http://hankroberts.wordpress.com Hank Roberts

    The “climate truth” site pointed to above says this is good science:
    http://buythetruth.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/toxic-seawater-fraud/ — check their science, logic, and blogroll.  Amazing
     

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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