Is Climate Change Our Most Important Environmental Problem?

I ask because it was labeled as such by Stu Clark, Washington State’s air quality program manager. His statement was in a follow-up article to something I posted on in August, a series of lawsuits filed by NGOs on behalf of children against state bodies. If the lawsuits prevail (and several have been summarily dismissed by courts) states would have to shoulder the burden of fixing a global problem.

However, I am curious at the statement that climate change is our most important environmental problem. Public opinion polls don’t reflect that in general perceptions. Water quality, air quality and soil quality routinely are cited well above climate change as environmental concerns.

Washington State has problems with all three. Puget Sound has water pollution problems that have affected wildlife. The Seattle area has real air quality issues on many days. And the presence of military bases and defense contractors have led to toxic soil issues. I’m not suggesting that Washington is environmental hell. It’s not–it’s really a beautiful state.

But the population there is growing swiftly and this does lead to environmental issues–habitat loss and pollution, while their position across the ocean from Japan and China makes it vulnerable to introduction of alien species.

Climate change is projected to have impacts very relevant to Washington. It is a coastal state–sea level rise will affect it. They have forests vulnerable to both wildfire and drought. Drought  leads to increased infestation. Much of their water and a good bit of their power comes from mountain snows. Reduced snowpack will have a very real effect on Washingtonians. A deeper look at how climate change is found on Washington’s Department of Ecology website.

I agree with those who say that Washington should take future climate change seriously and make planning decisions with it in mind. But whether it should rank top of the list is to me not a settled issue. A state that has grown in population from 4.8 million to 7 million since 1990 risks looking like some of the less attractive parts of California, Arizona and other states that have received similar inflows.

Planning for growth might solve as many real world problems as planning for the effects of climate change.

If they’re really smart, perhaps they can do both at the same time. You don’t want the whole state looking like this.



5 responses to “Is Climate Change Our Most Important Environmental Problem?

  1. So-called “Climate change” is the most important opportunity for our environmental organizations to receive massive funding for doing no work.

  2. I guess we all have our biases. I’ll go for water–all aspects, surface water groundwater, pollution, availability, characterization of problems, undoing damage that has been done [long time frames], etc. Also pollution problems in general tend to become multimedia, and that greatly compounds matters. Finally, water is essential for life in a much more immediate way than ambient temperature.

    Thinking at a higher level…maybe the biggest environmental problem is the perception and communication of risks. Yes, I’ll go for that.

  3. If left untreated, an easily treatable disease conceivably could kill you.

    Is it your biggest problem? Well, it shouldn’t be, but if you ignore it, it could be.

    • I agree, but I would hardly argue that climate change is going untreated. The growth of solar, wind and hydropower is making our fuel portfolio noticeably greener. The number of countries actively working to lower emissions is quite high. Investments in energy efficiency have climbed.

      You can argue that it’s not enough and I’d probably agree. But to say we’re doing nothing is pretty much insulting a lot of hard-working people. And the BAU scenarios don’t account for this, not really.

    • MT,
      The analogy of comparing “climate change” with a disease does not work as you wish.
      “climate change” is a social disease, like tulip mania or eugenics. The Climate we live in is not diseased.

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