Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.

Are we too obsessed by climate change? Over here, climate change is coming to completely dominate the sustainability agenda. This is true in politics, business, the media, and civil society.

Balancing act

I was talking to our new secretary of state for the environment, Hilary Benn, the other day, about his department’s strategy. He argued that all the other issues — such as air quality, waste, water, and so on — could all be dealt with under the climate change umbrella; government action on climate change would deliver for the other issues, and vice versa.

When we talk to companies or public authorities, it is the same. All they want is advice on going low-carbon. And since this is where the money and political attention are going, the NGO activity seems to follow, reinforcing the trend.

Of course, this is a good thing in many ways. Climate change is the major challenge we face. Sir David King, the U.K. Government’s chief scientific advisor, was right when he reminded his government colleagues that “climate change is a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism.”

For those of us who want to see green thinking integrated into other areas of life, climate change works well. It can’t be thought of as peripheral. It will affect everything, including how we run the economy and how we live our lives.

I worry, however, that we risk missing other important stuff too. Twenty-five years ago we hardly knew about climate change, which was then mostly the preserve of a few scientists. Pollution, biodiversity loss, waste, resource use, and protection of special habitats were the things that obsessed us; and they should be still.

Of course, climate change will touch everything. If the earth warms as predicted, we may not have tropical forests or the special habitats we are trying to protect. On this basis, many argue that we should focus solely on climate change. There is some merit in this argument. But I also think that an overemphasis on climate change does bring some risks.

Climate change does not touch people in the heart. It is a very complicated concept to get across. This is fine for people who deal well with graphs, and projections, and abstract concepts. But we all need to relate to real-life experiences, too. Very few of the public are motivated and changed by rational abstractions, or by things that won’t happen for decades.

The environment most of us experience is the one we meet when we step outside our front doors. We need to respect and tap into more immediate motivations for people. This is a lesson the green movement in the U.K. learned back in the early 1990s. The major environmental groups were so focused on big, faraway issues that ordinary people switched off. Instead, there was a flowering of local protest groups concerned with their own backyards.

Is there also a danger that policy-makers can use the long-term nature of climate change as an excuse not to take action on other issues today? By talking up targets for 2020 and 2050, we might miss urgent problems that are with us now, such as overfishing, deforestation, and the loss of species.

There certainly are trade-offs between tackling different environmental issues. And with a limited pot of money, other important areas can suffer. Policies can be in conflict, too. Remember the catalytic converter in the 1980s: good for tackling pollution, but bad for fuel efficiency. And bad for biofuels today, which may be good news for tackling climate change; but if poorly sourced, is very bad news for orangutans.

This is a difficult one to call. Climate change is a huge problem, and maybe we should give it priority over everything else. Or maybe we could do a better job of remembering that there are other important environmental issues out there.