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The Causes of Climate Change

Human-caused climate change is not our main challenge: It is certain values.

We are told that 2030 is a significant year for global sustainability targets. What could we really achieve comprehensively from now until then, especially with climate change dominating so many discussions and proposals?

Photo Taken by Ilan Kelman
More sustainable transport on water and land, with many advantages beyond tackling climate change (Leeuwarden, the Netherlands).
Source: Photo Taken by Ilan Kelman

Several United Nations agreements use 2030 for their timeframe, including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement for tackling human-caused climate change, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development. Aside from the oddity of having separate agreements with separate approaches from separate agencies to achieve similar goals, climate change is often explicitly separated as a topic. Yet it brings little that is new to the overall and fundamental challenges causing our sustainability troubles.

Consider what would happen if tomorrow we magically reached exactly zero greenhouse gas emissions. Overfishing would continue unabated through what is termed illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, often in protected areas such as Antarctic waters. Demands from faraway markets would still devastate nearshore marine habitats and undermine local practices serving local needs.

Deforestation would also continue. Examples are illegal logging in protected areas of Borneo and slashing-and-burning through the Amazon’s rainforest, often to plant products for supermarket shelves appealing to affluent populations. Environmental exploitation and ruination did not begin with, and is not confined to, climate change.

A similar ethos persists for human exploitation. No matter how awful the harm, human trafficking, organ harvesting, child marriage, child labour, female genital mutilation, and arms deals would not end with greenhouse gas emissions.

If we solved human-caused climate change, then humanity—or, more to the point, certain sectors of humanity—would nonetheless display horrible results in wrecking people and ecosystems. It comes from a value favouring immediate exploitation of any resource without worrying about long-term costs. It sits alongside the value of choosing to live out of balance with the natural environment from local to global scales.

These are exactly the same values causing the climate to change quickly and substantively due to human activity. In effect, it is about using fossil fuels as a resource as rapidly as possible, irrespective of the negative social and environmental consequences.

Changing these values represents the fundamental challenge. Doing so ties together all the international efforts and agreements.

The natural environment, though, does not exist in isolation from us. Human beings have never been separate from nature, even when we try our best to divorce society from the natural environments around us. Our problematic values are epitomised by seeing nature as being at our service, different or apart from humanity.

Human-caused climate change is one symptom among many of such unsustainable and destructive values. Referring to the "climate crisis" or "climate emergency" is misguided since similar crises and emergencies manifest for similar reasons, including overfishing, deforestation, human exploitation, and an industry selling killing devices.

The real crisis and the real emergency are certain values. These values lead to behaviour and actions which are the antithesis of what the entire 2030 agenda aims to achieve. We do a disservice to ourselves and our place in the environment by focusing on a single symptom, such as human-caused climate change.

Revisiting our values entails seeking fundaments for what we seek for 2030—and, more importantly, beyond. One of our biggest losses is in caring: caring for ourselves and for people and environments. Dominant values promote inward-looking, short-term thinking for action yielding immediate, superficial, and short-lived gains.

We ought to pivot sectors with these values toward caring about the long-term future, caring for people, caring for nature, and especially caring for ourselves—all of us—within and connected to nature. A caring pathway to 2030 is helpful, although we also need an agenda mapping out a millennium (and more) beyond this arbitrary year. Rather than using "social capital" and "natural capital" to define people and the environment, and rather than treating our skills and efforts as commodities, our values must reflect humanity, caring, integration with nature, and many other underpinning aspects.

When we fail to do so, human-caused climate change demonstrates what manifests, but it is only a single example from many. Placing climate change on a pedestal as the dominant or most important topic distracts from the depth and breadth required to identify problematic values and then morph them into constructive ones.

Focusing on the values that cause climate change and all the other ills is a baseline for reaching and maintaining sustainability. Then, we would not only solve human-caused climate change and achieve the 2030 agenda, but we would also address so much more for so much longer.


Kelman, I. 2017. "Linking disaster risk reduction, climate change, and the sustainable development goals". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 254-258.

Kelman, I., T.R. Burns, and N. Machado des Johansson. 2015. "Islander innovation: A research and action agenda on local responses to global issues". Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 34-41.

Kelman, I., E.A. Rosa, T.R. Burns, P. Ehrlich, J. Diamond, N. Machado, D. Kennedy, and L. Olsson. 2014. "Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB): Integrating Social Science and the Humanities into Solving Sustainability Challenges". Chapter 2, pp. 25-43 in M.J. Manfredo, J.J. Vaske, A. Rechkemmer, and E.A. Duke (eds.), Understanding Society and Natural Resources, Springer, Berlin, Germany.

Waage, J. and C. Yap (eds.), Thinking Beyond Sectors for Sustainable Development. Ubiquity Press, London, U.K.

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