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We don’t need to care about the environment

What if you prefer this? What if you don't care about the trees and the fishes? Doesn't mean you don't need them to survive. Photo: Amy Huva 2008

I’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric about the choice between the economy and the environment. Most environmentalists will talk about their emotional connection with nature and how we should care about preserving it, attempting to move people emotionally to care about the environment. The idea behind this is sound – people are more likely to look after things they have an emotional connection to, so if you can create an emotional tie to the environment, people are more likely to care about looking after it.

These environmentalists are then dismissed by the ‘realist’ and ‘rational’ economists who talk about how it’s much more important to have jobs, jobs, jobs, which will generally get linked to natural resource extraction and expansion. The ‘realists’ would love to have time to care for the environment like all the emotional hippies, but they’re too busy doing the ‘real work’ of building the economy.

And thus the stalemate continues and it all looks like a zero sum game. Except it isn’t.

Here’s the thing – whether you care about trees and fish or not is not relevant. If you prefer concrete to grasslands and high rise skyscrapers to hiking trips, even if your idea of a great holiday is more Manhattan than mountains, you still need the environment on a very practical level.

 Mountains are meh? Doesn’t matter. (photo: Amy Huva 2008)

We need to start recognising that even if a mountain vista makes you think ‘meh’, there’s still a very real and practical need for the services the environment provides us.

You don’t need to care about trees to recognise that we live in an environment. The economy does not operate separately from the environment because we all live in it (except for those currently on the International Space Station). So regardless of whether you like oceans, you can’t survive without them.

We all need to breathe, drink water and eat food. The environment has been providing us with these things for free for as long as humans have been on the planet (around 200,000years for those playing at home) and doing these things for ourselves would be very expensive.

So with that in mind, as humanity continues to barrel past 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere with little to no plans to stop burning carbon in the near future, we need to start thinking about how we’re going to source those things we fundamentally need.

You don’t have to like trees to recognise that they play a vital role in the carbon cycle as a sink for carbon dioxide, that they cool and purify the air around them, provide shade and oxygen.

You don’t have to like oceans to recognise that ocean acidification is a risk to global fisheries which are a large protein source for much of the world. Also, the ocean is currently the planet’s major carbon sink, so we’ll need to work out what we’ll do with all that extra atmospheric carbon further supercharging storms and hurricanes if we keep burning carbon and kill the ocean.

You don’t need to like or even eat meat to recognise the impact that prolonged drought will have on farming and therefore food prices and the availability of food, and you don’ t need to admit you don’t like eating vegetables to realise the consequences of potential ‘dust bowlification’ on the breadbasket agricultural areas of the world.

If we don’t stop burning carbon and further unbalancing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, all of these environmental services are going to become scarcer or impossible to access in some areas. You don’t need to be an economist to see the detrimental long term affect the loss of these services will have on the economy at large.

Image from NRDC report Who Pays for Climate Change?

The Natural Resources Defence Council in the US released a report recently showing that the cost of climate related disasters in 2012 was US$139billion, of which taxpayers picked up $96billion in emergency disaster payments. These kinds of costs are occurring with only 0.8oC of average temperature increase, and it’s expected that we’ve already baked in at least 2oC of climate change.

Extrapolate out those costs to the economy and it’s easy to see that you don’t need to care about the environment to realise that we need the essential services the environment provides us and that burning carbon puts them at risk. 

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