The Climate Change Paradigm

When I was child growing up in the late 80s in Zimbabwe, Africa, there was a nascent environmental movement establishing itself. This encompassed locally significant projects like community wildlife management (see the CAMPFIRE project), rhino conservation and other game conservation projects, and a wide range of ecological conservation endeavours. My imagination was fired by the conservation movement and I was eager to learn more and be involved. The prevailing mood was optimistic both regionally (a relatively peaceful  and integrated society and prosperous economy and independence for neighbouring South Africa being two that come to mind) and internationally (end of the cold war). Environmental issues did not feature prominently in the school curriculum but neither were they absent. Extra-curricular clubs like the Bundu-Bashers and Cub Scouts were a healthy outlet for urban kids like me who wanted to engage more with these issues. I also remember most households subscribing to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Magazine (with a Junior ‘World’ edition for youngsters) which were a good source of articles. The local newspapers weren’t great but Time and Newsweek were also readily available.

One of the big topics of the day was global warming. Whilst it is still in use today, mostly by an older generation of which I guess I am one, it has largely been ursurped by that broader umbrella term, climate change. This has got me thinking, is the term global warming still applicable? I’m pretty sure it’s still bandied around in the literature but it doesn’t seem to command the same level of attention, perhaps even acceptance, than it did before. To use an oft-quoted expression there has been a paradigm shift (of sorts). The overly simplistic model of a world becoming steadily and incrementally warmer has been thrown into doubt by the most recent long-term studies which show that whilst there has been an overall temperature increase since measurements began it has been far from consistent. Apparently the latest IPCC report acknowledges this much. The term climate change was in large part a result of a growing awareness of the fact that temperature changes were only one facet of a dynamic earth. In order to better understand the impact of human-induced activity on our external environment we have mainly modelled and monitored our gaseous emissions (H2O, CO2, NOx, CH4 etc) and particulates (smoke, ash and dust). It has been assumed that the key to surviving and perpetuating our existence on this planet is to better understand the interplay between hydrosphere-atmosphere-biosphere-lithosphere i.e. water-air-life-rock. We have intervened, manipulated and exploited all four spheres to some degree but until now our principal concerns have been changes in the atmosphere and to a lesser extent the biosphere. Global warming is one aspect of atmospheric change attributed to greenhouse gas accumulation, whilst climate change encompasses other phenomena like desertification, flooding, tropical storm frequency and severity and even the possibility of negative deviations in temperatures locally or seasonally. 

The paradigm shift has been important because climate change alludes to a greater range of dynamics at play, although it still falls short of the mark. The link to conservation issues like deforestation and loss of ecological diversity is not apparent. This is possibly because of the misconception that changes in the climate affect the biosphere and not vice-versa. Also not apparent are the effects of changes to the hydrosphere. For instance, higher polar temperatures have reduced seasonal ice cover and led to changes in major ocean current circulation. This has implications for heat distribution and feedbacks into atmospheric conditions. Another aspect of the hydrosphere of major concern is the distribution and health of the world’s freshwater. Water pollution is an issue that has been in the public eye for a long while but remains an issue in many parts of the world. Groundwater exploitation is not sustainable in many places and should be a cause for major concern vis-a-vis water security and the potential for human calamity and conflict. So although the term climate change will probably remain in vogue for some time yet it’s lack of specificity will probably limit its use in a future where we are better able to quantify local changes and better understand the dynamic interplay between all aspects of our environment.

In tandem with this thought is the continued relevance of the term sustainability in all its numerous forms and appendages: sustainable development, sustainable utillization, sustainable harvesting etc). In many ways sustainability has come to usurp the word conservation in the last 20 years probably because of the increased realisation that human interference in most instances is unavoidable and that some sort of balance needs to be attained whereby the environment or ecosystem can remain functional whilst we continue to exploit it. Conservation in its most literal form is a hands off approach to maintaining or restoring a natural ecosystem, species or groups of species. At least that’s what the word suggests to me. Sustainability will probably continue to maintain traction for some time yet because of the human consideration. Nevertheless I think the word is also a consequence of our collective sense of conflict when it comes to deciding our place in the world. Only when we can move to a socio-economic situation where we our resources are not limiting will we be able to shift the paradigm. Furthermore we need to see ourselves as being integral to the perpetuation, remediation and creation of present and future environments and ecosystems. If we empower ourselves to act in a way that not only ensures our survival but the continued health and diversity of our planet we can shift the paradigm from sustainability to creativity. We are, after all, great modifiers and not ones for maintaining the status quo.

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