We Can No Longer Ignore the Damage We Humans Do to the Environment and Human Health
So, this is where we are at the moment. The pandemic has resulted in a massive shift in wealth from workers to billionaires. Now, let’s talk about climate change, because it’s also going to be rough on humanity if we don’t fix it.
In January 2021, a new report came out from a number of scientific experts stating that people don’t currently appreciate the scale of the problems we face as a society and the solutions required in order to avoid a “ghastly” future. As a result, when the sh*t hits the fan, people are going to be too busy cleaning up the mess to be able to make the right decisions about what needs to be done, and many will suffer. It’s not a pretty picture. Biodiversity loss, ecological overshoot (using more than the planet can produce), the threat of a Sixth Mass Extinction, the failure of most countries to meet nature goals already in place and climate disruption are all getting worse on their own and exacerbating the overall situation of the entire system. And worst of all, environmentalism is treated by many as a political ideology instead of a “universal mode of self-preservation and planetary protection” that is so urgently needed right now. They say we have plenty of solutions and great things we can do, but people need to understand better the level of fundamental systemic change that is absolutely necessary, and scientists and leaders must speak loudly and realistically about the future.
In December 2019, a similar study by a number of scientific experts detailed the “transformative change” that is necessary to arrest and reverse the human-driven decline of life on Earth. The report details the change that is already happening (we are adding this here so you don’t have to read the whole report, but please do for best results):
- Human actions are causing the fabric of life to unravel, posing serious risks for the quality of life of people. Over the past 50 years, the capacity of nature to support quality of life has declined for 14 of the 18 categories of nature’s contributions to people considered by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
- Nature’s capacity to provide beneficial regulation of environmental processes—such as modulating air and water quality, sequestering carbon, building healthy soils, pollinating crops, and providing coastal protection from hazards such as storms and storm surges — has decreased globally, although for some benefits, trends vary by region. For the 100 million to 300 million people who live in coastal areas below the 100-year flood level, the loss of coastal habitats has increased the risk of flooding and storm damage.
- Loss of animal pollinators affects more than 75% of global food crop types, risking US$235 billion to 577 billion of global crop output annually.
- The potential of nature to contribute in nonmaterial ways to human quality of life—through learning and inspiration, physical and psychological experiences, and supporting identities and sense of place—has also declined.
- Human actions have directly altered at least 70% of land surface; 66% of ocean surface is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts; around 85% of wetland area has been lost since the 1700s, and 77% of rivers longer than 1000 km no longer flow freely from source to sea.
- Coastal ecosystems show some of the largest and most rapid recent declines. Live coral cover on reefs has nearly halved in the past 150 years and is projected to virtually disappear this century unless there is strong climate change mitigation. Seagrass extent is decreasing by more than 10% per decade, while kelp forests have declined in 38% of their biogeographic regions.
- The biomass of the world’s vegetation has halved over human history, and forests now span only 68% of their preindustrial extent. As a result of human impacts, terrestrial ecological communities worldwide are estimated to have lost more than 20% of their original biodiversity on average.
- In the ocean, animal populations and habitat extent have declined in the 20th century, with more than 20 described marine species having gone extinct.
- The number of species currently threatened with extinction is unprecedented in human history: an estimated 1 million species of animals and plants.
—Diaz et al, Science Journals
Right, that’s all from human activities. Also detailed in the report:
- The direct causes of changes observed in the fabric of life are (in decreasing order of relative impact worldwide)
- land and sea use change,
- exploitation of organisms,
- climate change,
- pollution, and
- invasive alien species.
- Within terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, the driver with the highest relative impact is land use change, mainly land conversion for cultivation, livestock raising, and plantations.
- The main driver in the ocean is direct exploitation through biomass extraction (mostly fishing).
- Although climate change is already a substantial driver of changes to nature and its contributions to people in many places, even causing extinction in some cases, it is not yet globally the most Important. Direct drivers of change that have predominated in the past 50 years will continue to play an important role, with climate change increasingly driving further biodiversity and ecosystem decline.
—Diaz et al, Science Journals
Yep, you heard that everyone, although climate change is a massive global problem, it’s not even our worst problem according to these scientists. All of this is tied up together, and if we don’t make changes and fix our ways of doing things, our nice stable nature and climate are going to unravel. To get a review of some of the climate changes over the past many millions of years and how they compare to now, read this article from the Atlantic.
Scientists have determined over many studies over as many years that human greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels have to not just be reduced, but virtually eliminated in our lifetime. This is in order to avoid potentially catastrophic changes to Earth’s climate that has been at relatively stable temperatures for the past 10,000 years. As the old saying goes: if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.
As we already pointed out in the previous section, most of the harmful emissions are caused by burning of fossil fuels. Read more about research and data on climate: http://cait.wri.org/.