The disruptive force of sustainability and why we need to be careful

A coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1947.
Coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946. By U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Sustainability is a disruptive force. By fundamentally changing the way we think about interconnected social-ecological-technical systems, sustainability demands new models for governance, institutions, economies, technologies, and value systems. These are necessary changes. All of our students know that maintaining the status quo will be inadequate at best, dangerous at worst. We must find new ways, new interventions, to build a sustainable future.

However, change can bring hardship. In the 15th century, the advent of the printing press in Europe set in motion the spread of knowledge and literacy, but put thousands of scribes out of work. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century spurned the growth of incomes, cities, life spans, and educational attainment, but undermined the way of life for small-scale artisans. The knowledge revolution and growth of computing and robotics is eliminating occupations and will do so in ways we don’t fully comprehend. Transitions can release people from drudgery or dangerous work, but also separate them from their livelihoods, their communities, what they know and how they define themselves.

We are now undergoing an energy transition, away from coal to natural gas and renewables. This should have positive effects for the planet by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. But it can be devastating to coal mining communities. The planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the worst polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States (and also expensive to operate), will have positive environmental benefits but will put thousands of people out of work, many on the Navajo Reservation. As GIOS Director Dr. Dirks reminds us, one of the reasons that energy from solar panels is becoming inexpensive is that these systems, once installed, require very few workers.

It is important to remember that embedded in the term sustainability is the notion of human well-being. A key challenge for all of you is develop transition strategies that are just and fair, paying careful attention to people who are most vulnerable. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and change will happen in sudden, unanticipated ways. And change must happen. What I ask of all of you is to use your deep systems and normative perspectives to make sure that the transitions lead to ‘inclusive, inter-generational human well-being’ (Matson, Clark & Andersson 2016) while taking care of earth’s life systems on which we all depend.

Sustainability is a disruptive force, and should be. But I urge all of you to take on this awesome responsibility, and amazing sets of opportunities, with care. I am confident you will.

Congratulations Class of 2018!

Matson, Pamela, Clark, William C., and Krister Andersson. 2016. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Convocation address: On hope and agency in sustainability (fall 2015)

boone_regaliaA typical pathway for students entering as first time freshmen in the School of Sustainability is taking the Advanced Placement test in Environmental Sciences in high school. When I ask students what draws them to sustainability rather than biology or ecology, they respond that sustainability is not about doom and gloom—rather, it offers hope and invites everyone to do something about creating a desired future for people and the planet. As young people anticipating decades of their own future lives in an era of significant social and environmental challenges, there is a strong vested interest in not accepting the status quo. They recognize the burdens they inherited from present and past generations but are motivated to make change for the better. In short, they are drawn to the principles of hope and agency embedded in sustainability.

A key difference between most environmental science programs and sustainability is a focus on interventions. Similar to public health, sustainability teaches students that integrated, systems-level interventions are appropriate for achieving desired outcomes. Implicit in the notion of interventions is that sticking with the familiar is inadequate for achieving long-term, sustainable outcomes. Despite potential dilemmas of interventions—the potential for lock-in and unintended consequences—students in the program come to recognize that thoughtful, flexible change experiments are necessary given current trajectories, whether it be climate change, biodiversity loss, energy consumption, waste production, income inequality, inadequate nutrition, and other global concerns. 

Another thing to remember is that sustainability transitions are driven by people responding to challenges and opportunities of existing social-ecological-technical systems. Conscious, deliberate design can facilitate transitions to new stable states, and transitions can be accelerated by “bending the curve” of current pathways. With the momentum of the COP21 meetings in Paris, we have an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy and potentially avoid catastrophic consequences projected by the business-as-usual models. 

Although action at the international level, such as the COP21 meeting, is critical, it is important to remember that individual action (agency) to mitigate the grand challenge of climate change can aggregate to have significant impacts. However, the messaging is important because individual action on something as large as climate change could seem futile. I believe we need to turn the idea on its head, and make the argument that individual action, such as reducing one’s own carbon footprint, will have far-reaching impacts, given the global circulation of carbon dioxide, and long-lasting consequences, given the long life span (from decades to hundreds of years) of new carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. From your own little corner of the globe, your individual actions can impact someone or something thousands of miles away for generations. This ability for an individual to have a long-term global impact by decisions made today is a very powerful expression of agency, and if done well, for hope.

World Bank Group and GIOS partner on climate change workshop

Earlier this week, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) offered a workshop on sustainability and climate change to more than 30 participants from the World Bank Group (including IFC). The purpose of the workshop was to learn about the latest science of climate change, how climate change may affect the operations and priorities of the World Bank, and to explore how the World Bank could contribute to climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. From ASU, 7 prominent scientists presented their views and research on climate change issues.

Jim Buizer (ASU sustainability scientist and director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the U of Arizona) kicked things off with a presentation on latest findings from climate change and drew on some of his own research on climate change adaptation and resilience, including some work in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar. The next session focused on carbon budgets and pricing. ASU professor Klaus Lackner, the Director of the Center of Negative Carbon Emissions, demonstrated that carbon intensity of production would have to increase by more than 7 percent a year to remain within a target of 450 ppm for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations—a very tall order that would likely necessitate the use of carbon capture and storage technologies. Professor Michael Hanemann outlined some of the failed attempts at carbon pricing schemes, including cap and trade, and the limitations of the integrated assessment models that couple economic with damage models. He saw a role for the World Bank to improve the integrated models and to incorporate social cost estimates of climate change. James Close, Director of Climate Change for the World Bank, announced to the group that the World Bank has arrived at a social cost figure of $30/ton of carbon.

Dan Bodansky, Foundation Professor in the ASU Law School, gave a lunchtime address on the lead up to the Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Paris this December. His remarks included some predictions on the outcome of the meeting and some of the political obstacles to achieving binding agreements. One of the key differences from the Kyoto Protocol is the bottom-up approach of allowing countries to set their own goals for emissions, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The question of equity and climate change was the focus of the next session led by Sonja Klinsky, faculty in the School of Sustainability. Dr. Klinsky pressed the important point that equity needs to be incorporated into all aspects of climate change, from examining drivers to impacts, whether discussing mitigation or adaptation. Failure to incorporate equity, she demonstrated, would increase vulnerabilities and undermine efforts to reduce climate change drivers and negative repercussions. Alan Miller, retired from IFC, concluded the day’s sessions with a discussion of climate finance, including innovative financial instruments, investment needs, and potential priority interventions to support changing demand. He also offered an excellent retrospective on IFC and WB efforts in climate finance and climate change research. The day wrapped up with a closed-door session for WB/IFC staff to assess the day’s discussions in relation to their needs and priorities and those of their clients.

The second day began with a session on the climate impacts in key sectors. ASU faculty Netra Chhetri focus on agricultural impacts with a special emphasis on adaptation in response to climate change, particularly in Nepal. GIOS Director Gary Dirks discussed the implications of climate change policy on the energy sector, threats of stranded assets, the role of renewables in climate change adaptation, and the politics of new utility models. Founding Director of GIOS and the School of Sustainability Chuck Redman focused on the risks to infrastructure from climate extremes and the need to build safe-to-fail resilient systems in anticipation of climate change, especially in critical urban environments.

The final session of the day was moderated by James Close (WB) and included Jennifer Hodbod, post-doctoral fellow at the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative, and Todd Brady, Global Environmental Director at Intel, as presenters and panelists. Jennifer focused on agricultural practices that can be undertaken immediately at little to no cost while Todd illustrated the power and innovation of private industry to mitigate and adapt to climate change. James led a rich discussion on how participants could incorporate what they learned during the two-day workshop into their everyday activities. Monali Ranade, Senior Environment Specialist at the World Bank, closed the session with a review of the objectives and key findings of the workshop.

From my perspective this was an excellent workshop. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage with an organization that is working on the ground on a daily basis and with significant resources to mitigate and adapt to climate change. I was very proud of the expertise ASU and GIOS faculty brought to the workshop. If the ideas generated from the workshop can be matched effectively to resources and practices, I see great potential for the World Bank and ASU to strategically align to address the grand challenges of climate change and sustainability.