The whole world is currently obsessed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The media is providing saturation coverage, governments are taking drastic actions, and people are hoarding food, toilet paper, and masks. This reaction is understandable and it is a major threat that needs to be managed decisively and competently.
However, we are simultaneously neglecting a much larger and more dangerous threat, something which could ultimately result in humanity's extinction, or at least make our existence extremely difficult. That is, the rapid and ubiquitous destruction of the biosphere that sustains all life on earth.
Humans are great at responding with speed and vigour to imminent threats like pandemics, wars, and natural disasters. However, we have an enormous blind spot when it comes to longer-term threats and are seemingly incapable of mustering the sense of urgency needed to solve them. We must overcome this shortcoming!
Over a quarter of a century ago, 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued a Warning to Humanity which began with the following:
"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about."
So let's have a look at what's happened in the interim...
Despite overwhelming evidence that humanity is in the midst of multiple self-inflicted disasters — including the climate emergency, habitat destruction, mass extinctions, soil degradation, water scarcity, pollution, and chemical exposure — most governments refuse to take the measures necessary to counter these ever-worsening threats.
The primary cause of these problems is human activity, yet we have failed to prevent massive population growth. The United Nations (UN) predicts that the world population will explode to 11.2 billion by 2100 compared to 5.6 billion back in 1992 when the warning above was made, or just 2.5 billion in 1950. Meanwhile, we keep plundering the earth's finite resources as if they were infinite and putting short-term profit ahead of community benefit. The consequences of rapid population growth and unsustainable consumption are catastrophic.
The climate emergency is one of the greatest threats. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends limiting warming to 1.5°C, but says this will "require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" and that carbon dioxide emissions will need to fall by around 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050. Currently, there is little sign this will happen.
The lack of commitment by governments to staying under 1.5°C is appalling. The UN Emissions Gap Report 2019 says that, "If we rely only on the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, temperatures can be expected to rise to 3.2°C this century." However, this level of warming would be disastrous! Worse still, a report by the London School of Economics says that a mere 17 of the 197 countries that signed the Paris Agreement have implemented national laws or policies consistent with their agreed targets. We are therefore nowhere near to achieving the necessary reductions. In fact, CO2 emissions began rising in 2017 after three years of stagnation.
By continuously kicking the can down the road, politicians are making it almost impossible to achieve acceptable outcomes. According to the UN, "10 years ago, if countries had acted on this science, governments would have needed to reduce emissions by 3.3% each year" to keep warming under 1.5°C. "Today, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% every year." But emissions are rising, not falling, so the outlook is extremely grim.
The UN says we are running out of time.
Making matters worse, new research shows that atmospheric methane began rising in 2007 and accelerated during the four years from 2014 to 2017. Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement did not take into account these unexpected rises, so it could be much more difficult than originally anticipated to meet the (woefully inadequate) Paris goals, even if enough countries eventually do start to take their obligations seriously. Methane has over 30 times the warming potential of CO2, so even relatively small increases can have substantial impacts. The paper says there is currently no confirmed explanation for where the increased emissions are coming from.
Warming is especially bad in the Arctic. A recent UN report says that it is warming at twice the global average and that even if all countries fulfilled their Paris obligations, Arctic winter temperatures would still be 5 to 9°C higher by 2080, relative to 1986–2005 levels. If this happens, much of the region's permafrost is going to thaw and the abundant carbon that it contains will decay, thereby releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Permafrost holds a staggering 1,500 billion tons of carbon worldwide, about double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Disturbingly, it looks like a substantial portion of this stored carbon is destined to be released over the coming decades. According to the report, the present area of permafrost in the northern hemisphere is approximately 15 million km2. However, this is likely to decrease to just 5 to 8 million km2 by 2080. Furthermore, the faster the Arctic heats, the faster the land-based Greenland ice sheet will melt and the faster sea levels rise. One 2017 study estimated that Greenland ice loss has tripled in just 20 years.
A report by CARE Danmark says that 3°C of global warming, would have sea levels rise to a calamitous 6.4m beyond 2100 and inundate land now occupied by 432 million people. Meanwhile, other regions would become too hot for habitation. The report says, "Developing countries could face adaptation costs of US$790 billion per year and loss and damage costs of US$1.7 trillion per year by 2050" and unless governments take strong action, climate change-related disasters around the world such as floods, droughts, famines, and hurricanes could drive the total number of permanently displaced people as high as 250 million between now and 2050.
If the implications of a 3°C increase aren't enough to alarm you, it's worth noting that warming could become unfathomably worse than described above if we don't reverse current trends. A new report in Nature says that if atmospheric CO2 rises above 1,200 ppm, reflective stratocumulus clouds will begin to break-up thereby causing a projected 8°C of global warming in addition to the warming caused by CO2 directly. This nightmare scenario is likely to occur in 100 to 150 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to remain high.
This Ted Talk by Chad Frischmann, author of "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming" outlines the measures that he advocates to reverse global warming, and argues that the financial savings would greatly exceed the costs.
Another critical issue is that we're in the midst of the 6th Great Mass Extinction event and human activity is the main cause. A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says there has been a staggering "60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years." Meanwhile, a paper in Science estimates that animals are going extinct 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than if there were no humans.
The rapid decline of insects is even more terrifying. Insect biomass is said to be falling by 2.5 percent a year, eight times quicker than the decline for other animals. A paper published in Biological Conservation concludes that we might see the extinction of 40% of all insect species in the next few decades. Inevitably, this will have a powerful knock-on effect on the countless animals that feed on insects and numerous important biological processes.
Despite the urgent need to preserve forests to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, governments continue to allow deforestation with little regard to the consequences. The WWF says that we are losing 18.7 million acres of forests annually and habitat loss is now the primary threat for 85% of species included in the IUCN's Red List (ie. species that are classified officially as "Threatened" and "Endangered"). According to a study in Current Biology, just 23 percent of the world's landmass can now be considered wilderness and at the current rate of destruction, there is likely to be, "no globally significant areas of wilderness in less than a century".
In 2019, the world looked on in horror as the Amazon rainforests began to burn. Meanwhile there were also massive wildfires in Indonesia and Siberia. Then came the Australian bushfires which dwarfed them all, burning more than 6 million hectares, killing more than 1 billion animals, and emitting more than 250 million tonnes of CO2. Researchers have since said that climate change increased the risk of weather driving the Australian fires by at least 30%. How many more fire season like this can these regions survive?
Coral reefs, the "rainforests of the ocean", are faring even worse. A report by UNESCO says that within one to three decades, global warming and other stressors will destroy most of the World Heritage coral reefs. The authors believe that 25 of the 29 World Heritage reefs will have severe bleaching twice-per-decade by 2040, a frequency that will kill most corals and prevent reproduction necessary for replacement of corals. Coral reefs are the most biodiverse marine ecosystems. The environmental and financial costs will be devastating.
The authors of another major study about extinctions said, "The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic, and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe." They conclude, "All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life." This is serious stuff, so why are we ignoring these warnings?
So let's summarise the story so far. Basically, we're annihilating or damaging all of the world's natural habitats; killing most of its wild animals; and releasing gases that are heating the atmosphere to a point where sea levels will rise dramatically, floods, droughts and famines will be more frequent; and large parts of the earth become uninhabitable because it's too hot for humans to survive. Oh, yes, and of course... as the climate emergency worsens, there will be even more habitat damage, biodiversity decline, and extinctions.
But that's just part of the story... Humans have known for decades they are destroying the biosphere, but have steadfastly continued down the same path. So maybe some people (falsely) believe the natural world is expendable and its demise won't affect them personally? Well. OK. What about food security?
Agriculture creates 21 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This means that farmers are contributing to the frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods which can cause catastrophic crop and livestock losses and thereby threaten the viability of their own farms.
Intensive agriculture requires vast amounts of water. As a result, about 70% of all water consumption globally is by agriculture. The World Bank says that, "By 2050, feeding a planet of 9 billion people will require an estimated 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals." That increase in water usage will create additional strain on water reserves which are often already stretched beyond their limits. Water shortages are expected to be especially damaging to agricultural production in regions including Southwest United States, Northeast China and Southwest India and affect food supplies for large numbers of people. "At present, an estimated 3.6 billion people live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion by 2050", according to a UN report.
Furthermore, conventional agriculture requires fertile soil, but it destroys the very topsoils that the farms need to stay viable. According to the WWF, half of the topsoil on the planet has already been lost and the remaining soil is being degraded by compaction, salinity, and loss of structure and nutrients. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research says that, "Topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes, and, since the mid-20th century, 30 percent of the world's arable land has become unproductive due to erosion" and "95 per cent of the Earth's land areas could become degraded by 2050."
Meanwhile, there will be an estimated 63 percent increase in global meat consumption by 2050. The additional livestock will require more land, more water, and contribute more greenhouse gases.
Another major issue is pollinator decline. A large reduction in pollinators can have significant negative impacts on crop yields. Most leading types of food crops rely to some extent on animal pollination and both wild and managed pollinators have significant roles to play. Beekeepers in the US typically expect around 17 percent of their bees to die each year, but recent losses have been more than twice as high. Losses of this size are considered unusual and unsustainable. Wild and managed pollinators are declining in North America and North West Europe. There are probably similar declines in other countries and regions, but disturbingly there is insufficient data to say with certainty how bad the problem is in many locations.
Of course, concerns for food security also apply to fisheries. Roughly one third of the world fish stocks are currently being overfished, with a further 60 percent being fished at the maximum sustainable amount according to a report by the UN. This overfishing threatens the primary food source for a huge number of people. Over three billion people currently depend on fish as an essential protein source and 800 million rely on it for both nutrition and income. As the world population grows, so will the demand for fish and pressure on fisheries.
Overfishing isn't the only problem for fisheries. Global warming is increasing the average marine temperatures thereby endangering the viability of many marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Furthermore, new research shows there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of devastating ocean heatwaves. A study published in Science revealed that ocean warming has already reduced sustainable fish stocks by 15 to 35 percent in five regions of the ocean, and 4% globally. Other environmental impacts like ocean acidification, deoxygenation, and algal blooms are also placing additional strain on marine ecosystems and fish stocks.
Many aquatic areas have become so depleted of oxygen that they are unable to support most aquatic life and are therefore called "dead zones". There are now more than 400 coastal dead zones around the world, and the number began to double about every decade starting in the 1960s. Deoxygenation in the open ocean is caused by greenhouse gas emissions and in coastal and inland water it can also be caused by nutrients in sewage.
In addition to damaging the means of food production, we are also wasting vast amounts of food. Approximately one third of all food is discarded. There is waste in every part of the supply chain, from farms, to wholesalers, to retailers, to restaurants, and homes. In many instances, healthy produce is rejected simply because it did not meet the aesthetic requirements of retailers. Meanwhile, over 800 million people go hungry globally.
Moving on from food security, let's consider the fact that we're poisoning ourselves.
I discussed water scarcity above, but neglected to mention that much of the available water is polluted. According to a recent paper in Nature, "90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged into the water untreated. Every year 730 million tons of sewage and other effluents are discharged into the water. Industry discharges 300 to 400 megatons of waste into the water every year." In other words, we are poisoning the water that people, livestock, and wildlife drink. Even many developing countries have deteriorating water quality problems. In the US, the EPA recently removed or weakened the environmental protections for streams, wetlands, and groundwater.
Then of course, air pollution is a major problem in cities throughout the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 91% of people live in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits and each year there are 8 million deaths resulting from outdoor air pollution and smoke from cooking stoves. A recent report suggested that air pollution kills more people than cigarettes. Without new and effective policies the OECD predicts that air quality will continue to worsen and by 2050 it is projected to be the biggest cause of environmentally related deaths worldwide. Many of these emissions also contribute to climate change.
Agriculture is one of the main sources of chemical exposure for humans and wild animals. Intensive agriculture involves spraying crops with hundreds of toxic chemicals, some of which remain in food as residues as well as contaminating water supplies. These chemicals have been linked to serious diseases including cancer, endocrine disruption, and birth defects by multiple studies. Despite the risks, numerous dangerous chemicals remain legal, and in some countries, the use of agricultural chemicals is virtually unregulated. Companies like Monsanto are using genetic engineering to create herbicide tolerant crops which have resulted in more herbicide use, herbicide-resistant weeds, and other environmental and human health impacts.
There are also countless harmful chemicals in various manufactured products. One of the most widespread examples is endocrine disruptors (EDs) which can interfere with the production or activity of human hormones. They are common in many products including food, plastic bottles, non-stick fry pans, food can linings, cosmetics, detergents, medicines, dental floss, flame retardants, toys; and as mentioned above, they are also found in pesticides. Exposure to EDs can cause illnesses such as: cancer; harm to the development of fetuses or children; and changes to reproductive organs and functions. EDs are also associated with obesity and related diseases. Disturbingly, EDs are almost impossible to avoid in modern life.
Plastic pollution is another major concern. According to the UN, we create roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic annually and almost 80% of it ends-up in landfill or the natural environment. A report in Nature says the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers some 1.6 million square kilometres making it almost the size of Alaska. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum says plastic production is projected to double in the next 20 years.
A new study says that plastic creates risks to human health at every stage of its life cycle. Firstly, almost all plastics are made from fossil-fuel feedstocks which release various toxins into the environment when extracted. The raw materials are then refined into resins, a process which releases carcinogens and other toxins into the air. Next, the plastics are used by consumers, thereby exposing them to endocrine disruptors and other poisonous substances. Finally, they are discarded, releasing rubbish, toxic chemicals, and microplastics into the environment where they will enter the food chain. Microplastics are in pretty-much everything that you eat and drink. Nobody knows for certain what health risks they pose. It's a big experiment and we're the lab rats.
There are also many other sources of toxic pollutants which affect human and animal health. For example, a variety of toxic metals are discharged from factories, mines and other sources contaminating air, water, and food thereby causing major health problems such as cancer and brain damage. A common source of contaminated food is seafood because most of it is contaminated with mercury to varying degrees. According to research by the US Geological Survey, mercury levels in the northern Pacific Ocean have increased by approximately 30 percent during the past 20 years and are expected to increase by 50 percent more by 2050. Dangerous levels of heavy metals are also present in drinking water in many regions throughout the world.
If the calamities described in this blog post aren't a global emergency, I don't know what is. Sure, there might be legitimate arguments against some of the specific claims. But the point I'm making is that most research shows that the entire biosphere is being annihilated. Arguing the details of some of the individual points is unlikely to change this conclusion. Furthermore, you don't have to take my word for it. The world's leading scientists recently issued a second Warning to Humanity and this time there are over 15,000 signatories.
Their message is emphatically bleak:
Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse. Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption. Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.
By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.
To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world's leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.
These graphs show trends over time for environmental issues identified in the 1992 scientists' warning to humanity. Except for ozone, all of them are moving rapidly in the wrong direction. Note that while marine catch has been going down since the mid-1990s, at the same time, fishing effort has been going up. In other words, fish stocks are being depleted. Source: World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.
I strongly encourage you to read the entire 2nd Warning to Humanity here, if you haven't already done so. To my mind, it's the most important document written by anyone — ever.
So why haven't we taken sufficient action? Personally, I think that the necessary changes can't happen without the support of the world's governments and most have so-far been unwilling to take the necessary steps. Possibly the biggest source of inertia is that many politicians receive financial support from powerful vested interests — such as fossil fuel companies, agribusiness, and chemical manufacturers — who want to preserve the status quo. Also, many politicians remain devoted to the obsolete ideologies that created this debacle in the first place
Furthermore, it is especially difficult to persuade politicians to take the bold steps necessary when the media does not adequately inform the public about the unfolding environmental catastrophes. For example a report by Media Matters shows that US broadcast TV news coverage of climate change plummeted by 45 percent from 2017 to 2018, even as the climate crisis steadily worsened. Major broadcast news programs aired a total of just 142 minutes in 2018 and did a particularly bad job of explaining how climate change exacerbates extreme weather.
Worse still, biodiversity decline receives only one-eighth the coverage of climate change in mainstream media. In some instances, media such as many of the news outlets owned by News Corporation are deliberately spreading anti-science misinformation. And it's probably best not get me started about the countless "viral" falsehoods infesting the blogosphere. If mainstream and social media does not reliably and regularly inform people about the kinds of problems described in this post, the community will be much less likely to demand the necessary actions from their politicians and become more likely to accept self-serving propaganda from vested interest.
Given the unconscionable lack of progress, it can be hard to stay optimistic. But there's still reason for hope. We already have the knowledge and technology necessary to save the planet. The 21st Century has delivered a myriad of innovative and rapidly-improving technologies including renewable energy, electric vehicles, regenerative agriculture, biomimicry, aquaculture, biotechnology, sustainable chemicals, drones, robotics, remote sensing, 3D printing, big data, and artificial intelligence. These and other technologies can help facilitate a green economy which will provide a prosperous and sustainable future for both humanity and the natural world.
The big question is, will we transition to a green economy fast enough? I think it depends on how seriously we take the problems. As stated by Greta Thunberg, "Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis."
Here's then 15 year old Greta Thunberg at UN COP24 eloquently expressing her frustration about the lack of action on climate change and environmental destruction. If you haven't watched it already, you really should. It's very powerful and the youth of the world deserve to be heard.
For several decades, thousands of the world's leading experts have been issuing increasingly disturbing warnings. However to-date, we have failed to take the required actions. Now, some say that we've done so much damage that it's already too late — but that's just another excuse for doing nothing. If we act promptly and decisively, we CAN make huge reductions to the impacts and over time, we will be able to reverse a substantial amount of the damage. But that won't happen unless we make some revolutionary changes and make them soon.
Some naysayers will argue that the changes are too expensive. But how can you say this with any credibility when the cost of inaction is the obliteration of the systems that sustain all life on earth? When a nation is threatened by military invasion, its leaders usually do everything they can to defend their country regardless of cost. So how is this threat any different? In fact, I would argue that the threat is greater. The experts say that our planet's entire biosphere is being viciously assaulted by human activity and that we must urgently change course or jeopardise the survival of most species including our own. How can any sane and ethical person ignore that call? Furthermore, a shift to a green economy might actually be cheaper than business as usual.
It is essential to recognise that we can't allow the negligent procrastination and half-measures to continue. If we are going to avert (or at least mitigate) disaster, we must act NOW!
So what can you do personally to facilitate this change? First-and-foremost, you must DEMAND that your politicians support a rapid transition to a green economy. Secondly, you should do everything you can to persuade your organisation to adopt circularity. If you are reading this post, there's a good chance you're already trying, but there's always room for improvement. For example, are your organisation's goals ambitious enough? Is there sufficient momentum and urgency? And is it communicating and collaborating with other organisations? Finally, we should all be adopting sustainable habits and persuading friends and family to do likewise.
It's time to abandon the status quo, embrace science — and take action!
Adam Thyer is the Founder of GreenExecutive. He is not a scientist and does not claim to be an expert on sustainability. This post is simply a report of the information he found when researching these topics. The text contains links to the source materials.
Any opinions or views expressed in this blog post are those of the individual author, unless explicitly stated to be those of GreenExecutive.