4 things that threaten life on Earth!

By Jon Crooks

Planetary_Boundaries_2015.svg

Today I’m embarking on a journey.

I’ve been writing and blogging occasionally for a while now, but not in any kind of consistent or focused way. Since the General Election, I’ve become embroiled in politics: trying to help the Greens make progress in the lead up to the election and above all else trying to convince people that the Tories would cause more damage if elected. I didn’t envisage the Tories winning with an overall majority; I don’t think anyone did. And as expected, they’ve had a hugely damaging impact already – in just their first three months we’ve had the socially damaging Welfare Bill and a catastrophic assault on the environment in which David Cameron’s Government has taken aim at anything green and shot to kill.

I now find myself getting caught up in Corbynmania. It’s really exciting stuff. It does show that there has been a latent movement in this country just waiting for something to latch onto; just like what we’ve seen happening in Greece and Spain. I’m not saying I agree with everything Corbyn says, but most of it makes sense and shouldn’t be considered radical or extreme. The fact that it is, just shows how far to the right we have shifted. As reported in The Guardian today, his opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF.

I’ve been dabbling in economics myself. Trying to get my head around money creation as debt and whether economic growth is necessary or even desirable. More to come from me on that subject.

The thing is though, I don’t want to lose sight of what’s really important. Not that politics, economics and social affairs aren’t important, they are. But politics and economics are (or at least should be) just a means to an end. Our global economy and elected representatives should be there to serve our best interests. The question is how do we determine what those interests are? As global citizens, do we want to continue to make the rich richer at the expense of the majority of the population and the limited resources of the planet or do we want a new more stable and just global economy that puts people and planet before profits? What then is our starting point?

Many of us know that we need to move to a fairer, more sustainable economic model, but in order to do that we first need a deep understanding of what are the biggest global challenges we face, so that we can keep them in mind and not fall into short-term thinking when it comes to shaping our future. This is what I want to cover off in my blog over the coming weeks and months. Here, I’m going to set the scene by looking at the 4 biggest global issues we face, based on recent scientific research, just in very broad terms for now.

In future blogs I’ll explore each of the following 4 issues in more detail. From there I hope to continue my journey by discussing different solutions to these issues. I hope you will find it useful and informative, but more than anything, I hope it will spur you into action.

I’m taking some time out of my career to spend one day a week writing. I’m no genius, I’m not an economist or a politician. I’m not a scholar or a scientist, but I hope that by bringing ideas together and sharing them, I will have a positive impact. So here goes…

The 4 things that threaten us:

Scientists are now repeatedly saying that whilst over the last 10,000 years, human civilization has advanced significantly, it is changes seen over just the last 60 years in particular that have led to a situation in which humans are now eating away at our own life support systems at an unprecedented rate.

Our recent impact is now so significant, that we are thought by many to be entering a new age, the Anthropocene, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities.

Two major studies by an international team of researchers, published in Science and Anthropocene Review earlier this year, pinpointed the key factors that ensure a habitable planet for humans, with stark results. They found that the following 4 (out of a total of 9) worldwide processes have already exceeded safe levels. These processes are referred to as Planetary Boundaries and the 4 critical ones are:

Climate change

Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)

Land system change

Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans


All of these changes are shifting Earth into a “new state” that is becoming less hospitable to human life and these changes are down to human activity, not natural variability. Our economic systems have gone into overdrive and as a result there has been a massive increase in resource use and pollution on a global scale.

Climate Change

Since 1950, urban populations have increased seven-fold and primary energy use has soared by a factor of five. Carbon dioxide levels have now breached 400 parts per million for the first time in history.

Will Seffen, lead author on the two studies into Planetary Boundaries, believes we’ve reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible.

“This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than present.”

He also suggests that the weakening or reversal of carbon sinks (a forest, ocean, or other natural environment viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), such as the on-going destruction of the world’s rain forests, is another potential tipping point, where feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and this intensifies the climate impacts.

“A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.”   

The fact that this question remains unanswered puts into doubt the internationally agreed 2 Celcius so-called “safe limit” of global warming – something that to my consternation, is increasingly referred to as a “target“, rather than an outer limit.

The reality is there is no safe limit; we’re dicing with death. 

Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)

This is the second of the 4 critical planetary boundaries; another problem which is spiraling out of control, with species now becoming extinct at a rate more than 100 times faster than the previous norm.

The study of Planetary Boundaries concludes that changes to ecosystems due to human activities have been…

“… more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services.”

A study last year by scientists at WWF and the Zoological Society of London found that the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years.

“Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats.” – , head of environment at the Guardian

We are destroying natural habitats at an alarming rate, and this ecosystem damage, alongside the illegal wildlife trade, is leading to extinctions which will ultimately destroy the integrity our living global ecosystem (what scientists refer to as the biosphere). Steffen believes that direct human influence upon the land is contributing to a loss of pollination and a disruption of nutrients and fresh water.

We are clearing land, we are degrading land, we introduce feral animals and take the top predators out, we change the marine ecosystem by overfishing – it’s a death by a thousand cuts”

Land system change

Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the absorption of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, showing how interconnected these processes are. The study of Planetary Boundaries tells us:

“While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale…. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate.”

Land clearing is now concentrated in tropical areas, such as Indonesia and the Amazon, with the practice reversed in parts of Europe. But the overall picture is one of deterioration at a rapid rate.

That direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change.” – Will Steffen

Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans

This final process refers to the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertilizer use. This is now eight times higher than in 1950. 

Much of the nitrogen in fertilizers is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms rather than taken up by crops. Then, when it rains, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones and accumulates in our oceans. The amount of nitrogen entering the oceans has quadrupled.

“A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own. One regional-scale example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘dead zone’ caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.” – Planetary Bounderies, Stockholme Resilience Centre

Do we need a more convincing argument for going organic?

Will any of these 4 critical processes lead to the extinction of the human race?

Unless we implement radical change relatively soon, then in time, yes. Our economic system is fundamentally flawed, as it ignores these critically important life support systems. As Will Steffan puts it:

“History has shown that civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

The way I see it, we are trying to limit the damage we cause because of our intransigence. As we get closer to yet another climate meeting/ in Paris at the end of the year, countries are submitting their proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but as active players in a global market, it is not in their interests to commit to anything far-reaching, for fear that it will make them noncompetitive. Is this surprising? Do we really expect our politicians to introduce the necessary reforms?

What can we do ourselves as ‘active citizens’?

I intend to find out. I hope you’ll join me…

If you would like to join me on this journey, follow me on Twitter @TheBeardyGuy and subscribe to my blog.

 

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