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Sustainability and climate justice

Not long ago, the temperature on Antarctica’s Esperanza Peninsula reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit—the warmest ever. At the time it was about as warm as Newport Beach. A few days later, as though sending another disturbing message, Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier lost a chunk of ice 130 square miles in surface area. Scientists researching the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet reported that a similar melting, eons ago, had resulted in six feet of sea-level rise.

These kinds of stories, among many others, have confirmed for any doubters that climate change no longer is simply a dark unfolding vision of futurists. Reducing global warming by drastic decarbonization needs urgent action. The action required has a name other than “mitigation.” Instead the most relevant name is “adaptation”: not simply reduction of carbon emissions to limit warming, but adaptation of the way that every component of the modern world makes decisions about deployment of capital resources and technology know-how, economic and community development, family and personal life, work and careers, spending leisure time and, indeed, life and death.

Over the last several years many discussions about climate change have morphed into the climate-justice aspects of global warming. Within any nation, but especially in the poorest countries on the planet, poorer communities are hit the hardest by environmental degradation. Most adaptation projects don’t address such inequities. In fact, the dilemma of incorporating social justice into strategies for dealing with climate change is not unlike the issue of COVID-19. Climate change is impacting 100% of the world. Even in the scariest projections, “only” 70 percent of the world would be infected by COVID-19. In both instances as many as 2%—or roughly 100 million people—will die from the worst-case scenarios of climate change or viral disease. In both scenarios, poor people living in poor communities of all kinds will be most impacted.


Continued from the emailed newsletter

When the most experienced and informed experts on both sustainability and pandemics are asked to share their perspectives on the most effective solutions, they all agree on the necessity to accelerate and scale current action. These experts unanimously see significant risks for countries, communities and their most important institutions for failure to act strategically and sustainably. Progress is not sufficient to stave off major worldwide damage from either or both COVID-19 and climate change. If we continue the current trajectory, most experts believe that there is only a short time to avoid major, irreversible damage to human, social, and ecosystem health. 

Leading the world in sustainability requires that America lead the world in AI and other advanced technologies. America’s companies, universities and their R&D centers, start-ups and every category of entrepreneur have to continue innovating and exploring new advances in science and technology. And the U.S. federal government and its science research arms, like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have to continue—and increase—their support for sustainability-related R&D efforts.

Leading the world in AI and computing infrastructure is essential to the nation and for the advancing of all of its sustainability initiatives. U.S. sustainability strategies and priorities have to be viewed in the context of—and together with—national security. In the coming decades climate change will show up as an increasingly lethal enemy. The nation is under siege. As in any war, everyone has a role in and a shared part of both defense and offense. To be successful in halving greenhouse emissions every decade and becoming no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100 will require profound shifts in how we live and work that resemble a wartime. Our democracy will have to prove its resilience in the face of both predictable and unpredictable challenges.

The federal government will have to play a very key role. While continuing investment in defense, it will have to significantly increase non-defense spending in emerging technologies that radically alter weather patterns and enable humans and nature to thrive together. Federal investments should increase exponentially to build sustainability R&D capacity in the nation’s labs and research centers. Every federal investment to build breakthrough capabilities in AI, quantum computing, and other priority technology areas must have a sustainability goal.

Achieving sustainability goals will require unprecedented partnerships between government and industry. Facing many different and sometimes conflicting sustainability scenarios, we will need to accelerate the nation’s science and technology discovery process by funding R&D flexibly for years at a time. A top federal sustainability priority has to be increasing investment in the training of scientists and engineers as well as attracting more people to the U.S. that have sustainability expertise. Today, for example, a majority of computer scientists with graduate degrees working in the U.S. were born abroad, as are most graduate students studying computer science in U.S. universities. Rather than making it more difficult to remain in the U.S., the federal government should make it easier for these students to stay and contribute to American sustainability innovation. In other words, rather than waiting for comprehensive immigration reform, we should strategically change the immigration process for highly skilled people to attract them rather than drive them to other countries.

St. James Faith Lab is issuing an urgent call to action to all relevant sustainability actors—businesses, governments, academia, multilateral institutions, NGOs, and others—to accelerate and scale their efforts to deliver the sustainability goals called for by the U.N. in 2015. Finally, as SJFL has discussed in previous newsletters, AI extends and amplifies the capacity of human beings to understand and solve complex, dynamic, and interconnected systems challenges like the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Among the tools at their disposal, none will be more important than AI and digital technologies. 

Share with us your ideas!

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees

Executive Director

St. James Faith Lab

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