Yesterday, a group of more than 250 investors representing $15 trillion in assets asked policymakers to act on climate change and pointed out the severe economic reprecussions of inaction. Let's say for a moment that their message was heeded, or even that it was unnecessary. In other words, imagine the above headline hitting the papers around the world tomorrow. Problem solved. Think about it happening any way you'd like - renewable energy, CO2 capture technology, some yet-to-be imagined invention, a sudden scientific revelation - whatever pleases you.
Now, look around. What hasn't changed? Can we stop worrying about water supplies, biodiversity, poverty, conflict, mass migration, our food system, air, water or soil contamination, the long-term availability of materials, or any number of other issues driven by population growth and expanding resource use? Or, in this new world with a predictably stable climate, are businesses still facing risks related to ecological and human well-being?
This is the failure of focusing solely on climate change. It's a complex and urgent issue that needs attention, but it's a symptom of a larger problem, or rather an ecology of interconnected problems. Our predicament requires us to think and approach problems within the context of the whole system.
Most problems facing humanity are symptoms of poor resource performance and a lack of understanding about the role of human intellect in creating wealth. Wealth creation must be seen as a function of nurturing and leveraging intellect, as well as a function of what we do with resources. All pollution must be recognized as resources that are lost in processing and released into places where they become harmful to us. In a world where 7 billion people are sharing a shrinking material resource base, we have to focus on performance. Industry, governments, communities, and households need to focus on getting the most wealth-producing performance from each ton of resources used. (See "What is wealth?" for a perspective on wealth and resources.)
Most ideas about climate change or other issues you might put under the umbrella of "sustainability" generally fall into two simple categories: we need to be able to keep doing what we're doing, just more efficiently or powered differently; or, we need to stop doing what we're doing and accept living with less.
My concern since the climate issue emerged into the public arena has been that we're still failing to think about the whole system. We move from crisis to crisis - each one bigger than the last - without figuring out how to think about the world in a way that illuminates the interconnectedness of our problems and suggests elegant solutions.
We need solutions that address the core issues driving all of our seemingly disconnected problems. We need massively different thinking.