Competing Environmental Priorities

by David Zilberman

I have been teaching and working as an environmental economist for 40 years and I consider climate change and population growth as the most pressing challenges facing humanity. While I am familiar with much of the political rhetoric surrounding these issues, still I found myself wondering why not much has been done to address these issues. This year, in the opening session of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program [ELP], I got a partial answer.

The Beahrs ELP is a 3-week intensive training program for up-and-coming environmental leaders, mostly from developing countries. They come to Berkeley for training in topics such as leadership, conflict resolution, policy analysis, and natural resource management among others. Teaching is done by Berkeley faculty and experts from the Bay Area, but mostly they learn from one another and often we, as faculty, end up learning a lot from them as well. This year marks the 13th year of the ELP. In addition to the summer program, we also maintain an alumni network of more than 500 members, a small grants initiative where alumni can collaborate with Berkeley faculty and staff and we are working towards launching similar programs around the world.

In the first day of this year’s ELP, as part of a meet-and-greet activity, we conducted a simple exercise. We listed 8 major environmental and societal issues (climate change, biodiversity, poverty, water, food, deforestation, population and pollution) and asked the participants to rank them on a scale of 1-8 (1 being the most severe and pressing, to 8 as least). The results were tabulated and presented below:


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As you can see, there is very little consensus. If there was one topic that the ‘majority’ consider to be the most dire, it would be ‘poverty’ which 7 people ranked as number 1, while 16 people considered it to be in the top 3. Population was considered by 7 people as the most important and by 11 to be in the top 3, while 6 considered climate change the top issue, 10 considered it to be in the top 3. Global environmental issues: climate change, biodiversity and deforestation altogether were ranked as most important by 11 and top 3 by 27. Local environmental issues such as water and pollution were ranked most important by 6 and top 3 by 24 people. Furthermore, the ranking of some issues were bimodal. For example, population was considered to be a top 3 issue by 11 people, and 19 considered it to be in the bottom 3 of importance and 9 considered it least important. The immediate survival topics of poverty, food and water were considered be in the top 3 by 49 people, and overall these represent the issues people care most about. Thus it is clear, that even among environmental leaders there is a strong disagreement about the relative importance of climate change partially because of more immediate concerns like food, water and poverty. The issue of population is also divisive, perhaps because of differences in beliefs.

This was an informal exercise and lacks a lot of the rigor usually required by scientific studies however, to me it represents the gut feeling that affects the choices that people make. It is not that people do not care about climate change; but in the context of immediate survival challenges, it may take a backseat to other priorities. Being in America, my immediate concerns about food or poverty are not as dire thus longer-term issues such as population growth and climate change are higher on my radar screen.

Thus to address these pressing challenge, we need an integrated strategy that addresses both the immediacy of issues such as poverty, while at the same time tackles long-term challenges such as climate change and population, if we are to affect lasting change.