The current financial crisis has clearly taken policy attention and resources away from what might otherwise have been focused on addressing climate change. However, deceleration in spending will probably have a bigger impact in the short term on reducing carbon emissions and other excesses than any other action. But, an either/or situation is not what we need. We need to be able to take sustainability action while continuing to support economic growth.
So how does the global response to the economic downturn indicate possible responses to climate change at this policy level?
I am encouraged by the extent to which the country and the international community has acted cooperatively in response to the current crisis. However, while both the financial downturn and environmental sustainability challenges have global interrelationship in common, they are very different in another way.
The impact of the financial crisis on individuals was pretty immediate and hopefully reversible. There is a strong vision of what an attractive (read; wealthy) future looks like. In contrast, the biggest challenges facing concerted action on energy and climate change is that it is likely to be irreversible and catastrophic by the time the true consequences become readily apparent to the layman. Right now the impact is not really visible to most people and strong visions of an attractive (read; enhanced lifestyle) low carbon future are less apparent so the support for government action is limited.
I think the most important factor is whether the concerted cooperation and action on the financial crisis can be leveraged to overcome this challenge and become a precursor for strong and determined global action on climate change. Or have we just used up a limited supply of cooperative feeling, which together with the remaining financial challenges ahead, will delay the onset of our willingness to tackle climate change. Of course, I hope the former is the case and this crisis will prove to have been the model for what the global community can do by working together. A positive outcome for sustainability.