It is often assumed that climate change policies, including the Kyoto Protocol and the follow-on Copenhagen agreement now being negotiated, align well with sustainability's tenets. A closer look reveals this is not the case. First, they treat climate change as a one-time problem—anthropogenic greenhouse gases—with a one-time solution. In contrast, research has begun to reveal that human-caused climate change is already widespread and multidimensional. Moreover, the clear trend is for societal climate influence to increase and diversify, not decline and simplify. Second, they fail to address the impact of natural climate change on ecosystems and society, an area that is less well understood than the public commonly believes. A sustainable framework that guides human interaction with Earth's climate system must encompass the broader aspects of climate change and reconcile the reality of ongoing human influence. This includes the highly controversial use of overt human influence to benefit society and ecosystems.
Achieving climate sustainability will be far from straightforward, if we even choose to proceed. The concept unearths deeply held philosophical and religious conflicts, stretches our scientific capabilities, and forces us to address a considerable spectrum of practical concerns. Should we not choose to embrace it, we will find that our policies become less and less effective over time as climate problems expand beyond society's ability to avoid or eliminate them individually. This article elaborates on the need to include sustainability within the climate dialogue and explores the complex considerations that will quickly become part of the public debate.
Microsoft Corporation, Boulder, Colorado