Nature is foreclosing

By Amy Reiswig, February 2016

The Climate Nexus calls for a transformative discussion on adapting our life-support systems to climate change.

Jon O'RiordanMOST PEOPLE I KNOW would never say “I support ocean acidification” or “I support soil degradation” or “I support drought and food price increases.” Many of us pledge to fight these and other effects of carbon emissions—as if we can, like Superman, step out on the tracks and stop the runaway train. Yet often, through our actions, we unknowingly support the very things we say we stand against.

In their book The Climate Nexus: Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World (Rocky Mountain Books, December 2015), Robert William Sandford and Victoria’s Dr Jon O’Riordan explain the Earth’s delicately interconnected systems—our life-support systems—and how our daily decisions affect them. The book’s goal is not to pretend we can stop the changes already set in motion but to encourage us to understand the nexus and to actively plan and adapt rather than just react when crisis hits. If we can’t stop the train, we can at least learn what power we have to steer or slow it.

As the authors state simply, the nexus of where our demands for food, water and energy meet “lies at the very heart of human civilization.” But through population growth and climate change, which have become mutually entangled, human civilization is bumping up against the planet’s ability to meet those ever-increasing demands. “Nature is gradually foreclosing,” O’Riordan tells me matter of factly over morning tea. “It’s not overnight, but it is inexorable.” 

Our formerly resilient planetary systems are in decline. Whether it’s poor land use and agricultural practice leading to loss of soil—key for absorbing water, distributing nutrients, anchoring ecosystems and capturing carbon—or altered water cycles and ocean warming, the book warns of the “cascading effects of the failure to adapt to hydro-climatic change. On a global scale, failure leads first to greater vulnerability to extreme weather events, food crises, water crises, large-scale forced migration, and further human-made environmental catastrophes. These in turn lead to accelerating biodiversity loss and Earth-system collapse.”

Bye-bye, beautiful blue planet. Sorry we were such demanding, messy, destructive guests. 

Does it have to be that way?

Signed by 195 world leaders, the Paris agreement to limit and eventually reduce carbon emissions with a goal of keeping global warming to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels is a cooperative, coordinated step. “Up until now, very seldom has humanity acted in concert,” O’Riordan notes, stressing that while we’ll only know five years from now if it’s been successful, “at least everybody signed one piece of paper.”

But that piece of paper isn’t a licence for citizen complacency. Even within that limited warming scenario, big changes are coming—are actually already underway—and they’re not in civilization’s favour. For O’Riordan, there’s no question what we need to do: learn, get engaged and plan. And so the book promotes adaptation as not just an important policy area, but a personal practice. “Humans are the most damaging but also the most changeable” of Earth’s creatures, O’Riordan claims with a smile, sounding reservedly hopeful.

Himself a committed cyclist (who despite being about 20 years my senior looks like he could easily leave me in the dust on the trails), O’Riordan has spent 35 years in the public service in areas of environmental management and land and resource planning, including as BC’s Deputy Minister of Sustainable Resource Management. In 2007 he was invited to join Simon Fraser University’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT), a think tank focused specifically on studying risks associated with climate change and promoting adaptive solutions. He’s participated in three of their five major reports, and this book is the combination of five years of ACT research. As he says: “The nexus was much bigger than the individual parts, and they needed to be looked at together.” While the topic is bigger, the book itself is a manageable 150-ish pages, intended as an accessible introduction that can be read in a couple of hours. A second volume, on adaptive policies, is in the works.

Adaptation is a way of taking some control of the train. It involves being creative in how we use the resources in the nexus, from looking at new technologies and business models to reorganization of governance structures and thinking beyond environmental sustainability to environmental restoration. Above all, it means uprooting entrenched attitudes. “If we don’t confront the value system that created our problems in the first place,” the authors warn, “we will fail.” That means that the needs—or what we perceive as needs—must also change. 

For instance, Canadian households throw away 2.1 million tonnes of food a year—“enough to fill Toronto’s Rogers Centre three times over,” the authors write. And waste occurs in land and resource use as well, often discounting ecosystem value in favour of single-resource exploitation. 

But our survival depends on turning away from a siloed and throwaway approach based on comfort, conformity and a love affair with the appearance of prosperity. Close to home for me, strata rules prohibit sun-drying clothes on the balcony—something free and sustainable that eliminates wear on building systems and clothing, and reduces energy consumption. But because some people think it looks bad—perhaps, God forbid, makes it look like we can’t afford fancy machines—it’s prohibited. How much longer can we afford to let appearance rule our decision-making around resources? 

“All of our buying,” O’Riordan says, pointing to holiday consumption as an example, “is buying energy and water.” He laments that people don’t see that chain behind products and services, don’t realize the wasteful and environmentally destructive processes they’re supporting. That’s why we need what he calls transformative discussions and, above all, education—like the kind we get in this book. 

O’Riordan hopes that a better understanding of the nexus will motivate people to change their behaviour, not because it’s financially expedient but because it’s the right thing to do. His ideal would be for everyone, from primary to university, to take a course on the climate nexus. He’s currently helping develop a pilot course for use in high schools. 

Academic but applicable, the book is a call for us all to be creative engineers of our future. “In the end,” O’Riordan and Sandford conclude, “the entire human population on Earth is one…If we are to solve the crisis in the nexus, we will have to act in concert as one overall system, and learn to co-operate and support each other in ways that we have never thought of before. For better or worse, we are all in this together.” Full steam ahead. 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig proudly and stubbornly stealth dries her clothes on the balcony.