Tag Archives: extinction

Sustainability needs academics, outside Ivory Towers

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

Paris smog, from Montmartre

“It is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.” Above, winter smog over Paris, seen from Montmartre © Deborah Jones 2015

by Anthony D. Barnosky, Elizabeth A. Hadly, and Paul R. Ehrlich
March 18, 2016

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. Above, powerlines in Western Canada © Gavin Kennedy 2015

Meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. Above, powerlines in Western Canada © Gavin Kennedy 2015

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

Fishers leave Steveston, B.C. © Deborah Jones 2013

Fishing harbour at Steveston, B.C., Canada  © Deborah Jones 2013

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster.View Ensia homepage

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Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley.
@tonybarnosky  Elizabeth A. Hadly  is a Stanford professor and global change scientist.
@LizHadly  Paul R. Ehrlich is President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University. This story was first published by Ensia in collaboration   with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature. Read the original piece here.

You might also wish to read:

Academics can change the world – if they engage with it. By Savo Heleta, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Research and creative thinking can change the world. This means that academics have enormous power. But, as academics Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr have warned, the overwhelming majority are not shaping today’s public debates. Instead, their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers.

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Human survival in danger zone, study confirms

© Deborah Jones 2014

© Deborah Jones 2014

By James Dyke, University of Southampton
January 16, 2015

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological timescales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.

This in the year that the UN climate change circus will pitch its tents in Paris. December’s Conference of the Parties will be the first time individual nations submit their proposals for their carbon emission reduction targets. Sparks are sure to fly.

The research, published in the journal Science, should focus the minds of delegates and their nations as it lays out in authoritative fashion how far we are driving the climate and other vital Earth systems beyond any safe operating space. The paper, headed by Will Steffen of the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk.

It argues climate change along with “biodiversity integrity” should be recognised as core elements of the Earth system. These are two of nine planetary boundaries that we must remain within if we are to avoid undermining the biophysical systems our species depends upon.

The original planetary boundaries were conceived in 2009 by a team lead by Johan Rockstrom, also of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with his co-authors, Rockstrom produced a list of nine human-driven changes to the Earth’s system: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, alteration of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, freshwater consumption, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol and chemical pollution. Each of these nine, if driven hard enough, could alter the planet to the point where it becomes a much less hospitable place on which to live.

The past 11,000 years have seen a remarkably stable climate. The name given to this most recent geological epoch is the Holocene. It is perhaps no coincidence that human civilisation emerged during this period of stability. What is certain is that our civilisation is in very important ways dependent on the Earth system remaining within or at least approximately near Holocene conditions.

This is why Rockstrom and co looked at human impacts in these nine different areas. They wanted to consider the risk of humans bringing about the end of the Holocene. Some would argue that we have already entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which recognises that Homo sapiens have become a planet-altering species. But the planetary boundaries concepts doesn’t just attempt to quantify human impacts. It seeks to understand how they may affect human welfare now, and in the future.


It’s been a stable 11,000 years. Steffen et al

The 2009 paper proved to be very influential, but it also attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, it has been argued that some of the boundaries are not in fact global in scale. There are very large regional variations in consumption of freshwater and phosphorus fertiliser pollution, for instance.


Phosphorous pollution in croplands. Steffen et al

That means that while globally we may be in the green, there could be an increasing number of regions that are deep in the red.

The latest research develops the methodology so that it now includes regional evaluations. For example it assesses basin-level freshwater use and biome-level species extinction rates. It also includes a new boundary of “novel entities” – new forms of life and novel compounds the likes of which the Earth system has not experienced and so impact of which is extremely challenging to assess. Ozone-depleting CFCs are perhaps the best example of how a seemingly inert substance can produce planetary damage.


Tree cover remaining in the world’s major forest biomes. Steffen et al

The paper also gives an update on where we stand on some of the planetary boundaries. At first sight, it looks as though there may be some good news in that climate change is no longer in the red. But then closer inspection reveals that a new yellow “zone of uncertainty with increasing risk” has been added to the previous green and red classification.


2/9ths into the red. Steffen et al

Climate change impacts are firmly within this new yellow zone. Our atmosphere currently has about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. To recover back to the green zone we still need to get back to 350ppm – the same precautionary boundary as before.

Perhaps most importantly the research produces a two-tier hierarchy in which climate change and biosphere integrity are recognised as the core planetary boundaries through which the others operate. This makes sense: life and climate are the main columns buttressing our continual existence within the Holocene. Weakening them risks amplifying other stresses on other boundaries.

And so to the very bad news. Given the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of the Earth’s climate and the other planetary boundaries, it is with real dismay that this study adds yet more evidence to the already burgeoning pile that concludes we appear to be doing our best to destroy it as fast as we possibly can.

Extinction rates are very hard to measure but the background rate – the rate at which species would be lost in the absence of human impacts – is something like ten a year per million species. Current extinction rates are anywhere between 100 to 1000 times higher than that. We are possibly in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The ConversationCreative Commons

RackMultipart20131130-12778-xrbfmkJames Dyke is a specialist in Complex Systems Simulation at the University of Southampton.

His web site is here.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

 

 

 

 

 

 

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