Leaders around the world must rise up to face the enormous challenges to achieve a sustainable future, as environmental problems are adding stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being. According to experts from institutions including Stanford University, UCLA, and Flinders University, loss of biodiversity and accelerating climate change in the coming decades — coupled with ignorance and inaction — is threatening the survival of all species, including our very own. The stressors will perversely diminish political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends.
That’s the thesis from a comprehensive yet concise assessment of the state of civilization from an international group of 17 leading scientists. They’ve produced a warning that the outlook is more dire and dangerous than is generally understood, saying that world leaders need a “cold shower” regarding the state of our environment, both to plan and act to avoid a “ghastly” future.
The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals, the experts say.
A mass extinction is defined as a loss of ~75% of all species on the planet over a geologically short interval — generally anything less than 3 million years, and that “we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable,” according to the authors of “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Published January 13, 2021 in the Frontiers in Conservation Science, the perspective article summarizes predictions of mass extinction, declining health, and climate-disruption upheavals — including looming massive migrations and resource conflicts this century.
Think of it: major environmental problems have not received appropriate attention of late, with the US Capitol insurrection attack and the pressing health emergency of covid-19. Yet 3 environmental issues require urgent action, according to the authors.
- First, future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed or commonly reported. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.
- Second, political and economic leaders are unprepared to handle the predicted and looming environmental disasters — they’re not even capable of engaging in appropriate action.
- Third, scientists must speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public.
Lead author Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University in Australia says he and his colleagues have summarized the state of the natural world in stark form to help clarify the gravity of the human predicament.
“Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life. But the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss,” Bradshaw continues, “despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilization.” The environmental problems are compounded by “ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymying the action that is crucial for survival.”
The State of the Natural World
The perspective article outlines the state of the natural world “in stark form” to help clarify the gravity of the environmental problems and the resulting human predicament. The authors describe likely future trends in biodiversity decline, climate disruption, and human consumption and population growth to demonstrate the “near certainty that these problems will worsen over the coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come.”
Biodiversity decline: Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious.
- Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved, with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens.
- There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded.
- Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last 5 decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline, thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species.
Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered. Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene, while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.
Climate disruption: The dangerous effects of climate change are much more evident to people than those of biodiversity loss, but society is still finding it difficult to deal with them effectively.
- Civilization has already exceeded a global warming of ~ 1.0°C above pre-industrial conditions and is on track to cause at least a 1.5°C warming between 2030 and 2052.
- Today’s greenhouse-gas concentration is >500 ppm CO2-e, while according to the IPCC, 450 ppm CO2-e would give Earth a mere 66% chance of not exceeding a 2°C warming.
- Greenhouse-gas concentration will continue to increase (via positive feedbacks such as melting permafrost and the release of stored methane), resulting in further delay of temperature-reducing responses even if humanity stops using fossil fuels entirely well before 2030.
- Expected warming would still reach 2.6–3.1°C by 2100 unless large, additional commitments are made and fulfilled.
The latest climate models show greater future warming than previously predicted, even if society tracks the needed lower-emissions pathway over the coming decades. Nations have in general not met the goals of the 5 year-old Paris Agreement, and, while global awareness and concern have risen and scientists have proposed major transformative change in energy production, pollution reduction, custodianship of nature, food production, economics, and population policies, an effective international response has yet to emerge.
The Paris Agreement set the 1.5–2°C target unanimously. But since then, progress to propose, let alone follow, (voluntary) “intended national determined contributions” for post-2020 climate action has been inadequate.
Human consumption & population growth: The impact of population growth, combined with an imperfect distribution of resources, leads to massive food insecurity.
- By some estimates, 700–800 million people are starving, and 1–2 billion are micronutrient-malnourished and unable to function fully, with prospects of many more food problems in the near future.
- Large populations and their continued growth are also drivers of soil degradation and biodiversity loss.
- More people means that more synthetic compounds and dangerous throw-away plastics are manufactured, many of which add to the growing toxification of the Earth.
- Population growth increases chances of pandemics that increase ever-more desperate hunts for scarce resources.
- Population growth is also a factor in many social ills, from crowding and joblessness to deteriorating infrastructure and bad governance.
There is mounting evidence that when populations are large and growing fast, they can be the sparks for both internal and international conflicts that lead to war. The multiple, interacting causes of civil war in particular are varied, including poverty, inequality, weak institutions, political grievance, ethnic divisions, and environmental stressors such as drought, deforestation, and land degradation.
Final Thoughts about the World’s Pressing Environmental Problems
These scientists offer many examples of successful interventions to prevent extinctions, restore ecosystems, and encourage more sustainable economic activity at both local and regional scales. They contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future.
Acknowledging recent calls for the scientific community in particular to be more vocal about their warnings to humanity, the authors state that such warnings have been “insufficiently foreboding to match the scale of the crisis.” They describe that the existence of a human “optimism bias” triggers some to underestimate the severity of a crisis and ignore expert warnings. Thus, a good communication strategy must ideally undercut this bias without inducing disproportionate feelings of fear and despair.
“It is, therefore, incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead, and ‘tell it like it is,'” the authors implore. “Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”
Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University says that no political or economic system or leadership is prepared to handle the predicted disasters or is even capable of such action to confront the looming environmental problems. “Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability. While it is positive news that President-elect Biden intends to reengage the US in Paris Climate accord within his first 100 days of office, it is a minuscule gesture given the scale of the challenge.”